Is it Shingles or Something Else?

Do you ever wonder what shingles looks like? Especially if you haven’t seen shingles pictures, you could easily mistake a shingles rash for another health condition that affects the skin. The shingles virus causes an outbreak of a red rash and blisters across the face and body, like many other skin conditions — psoriasis, allergies, eczema, and hives among them.

A shingles rash may have mild to severe pain, and the viral rash most commonly appears along a band called a dermatome. Dermatomes follow the paths of individual nerves and generally span one side of the chest, abdomen, or a limb. Unlike chicken pox, the shingles rash usually occurs on one side of the body. The shingles virus may also affect the neck, face or eyes and cause loss of vision.

According to the Mayo Clinic, shingles or herpes zoster is a common condition that occurs when the chicken pox virus (varicella zoster) reactivates after lying in the body dormant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one out of three people over 60 in the United States will get shingles. While the shingles rash occurs more often in older adults (50 and older), anyone of any age is at risk for the shingles rash, if they have had chicken pox.

Signs and symptoms of the shingles virus include:

  • Chills
  • Extreme sensitivity in a limited area of your body
  • Fever
  • Fluid-filled blisters that break open and form a crust
  • General feeling of unease and discomfort (malaise)
  • Headache
  • Pain, burning, numbness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Upset stomach

According to the CDC, more than 99 percent of Americans age 40 and older have had chicken pox. If you don’t know if you had chicken pox, check with your family doctor who can review your records. Also talk with your doctor about a shingles vaccination to prevent this viral rash if you have the following shingles virus risk factors:

  • Cancer treatments Radiation or chemotherapy can lower your resistance to diseases and may trigger the shingles virus.
  • Certain diseases HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other diseases that weaken the immune system leave you at higher risk for the shingles virus.
  • Certain medications Prolonged use of steroids (prednisone) or anti-rejection medications increase your risk of getting shingles.
  • Older than 50 The shingles virus is more common in older adults but younger adults can still get shingles.

Two vaccines may help prevent the shingles virus — the chicken pox (varicella) vaccine and the shingles (varicella zoster) vaccine. Although the shingles vaccine is approved for adults age 50 and older, the CDC does not recommend it until you reach age 60 or older. This is when the risk of shingles and its complications is highest.

Ask your doctor if you’d benefit from a shingles vaccine. The vaccines are available in physician’s offices and pharmacies.

Shingles Is a Viral Rash, Like Chicken Pox

Shingles rash is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. The shingles virus lies dormant in the nerve fibers of people who have had chicken pox; as they age, the virus can reactivate and cause shingles. The CDC reports that about one in five people who have had chicken pox will get this viral rash at some point in their lives. It is most common in those over 60.

Symptoms and Treatment for Shingles Rash

The first symptom of the shingles rash is usually a burning or shooting pain, generally on one side of the body or face. One to three days later, a viral rash will erupt and eventually form pus-filled blisters like those of chicken pox. The blisters remain for as long as two weeks before crusting over and fading away. All patients who suspect they have shingles should seek medical attention. Studies show that not treating shingles worsens post-herpetic neuralgia pain.

Is It the Shingles Rash or Psoriasis?

Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, most likely inherited, that is easy to confuse with the shingles rash. As with the shingles virus, psoriasis forms rash-like patches on the skin. One type of psoriasis — pustular — can lead to the development of blisters surrounded by red skin. Unlike the shingles rash, a psoriasis rash does not fade in a couple of weeks on its own. Instead, the skin often grows more red and scaly over time, and can crack and bleed.

Is It an Allergic Reaction or the Shingles Rash?

A skin allergy can cause a rash that looks similar to the shingles rash. Red sores resulting from an allergic reaction to medication will be irregular in shape and either flat or raised. This kind of rash may also be caused by exposure to a skin allergen like poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, in which red, itchy rashes may include bumps and seeping blisters, much like the shingles virus. Rashes caused by allergic reactions tend to clear up on their own, often within three weeks after exposure.

Hives and the Shingles Rash Are Often Confused

Hives are another type of allergic reaction that can be confused with the shingles rash. Hives are red, itchy bumps and swollen areas of varying sizes that can appear anywhere on the body. The allergic reaction that prompts hives can come from exposure to certain medications, foods, latex, or a viral infection. A quarter of Americans will experience hives at least once in their lives, while one in three Americans over 60 will get the shingles virus. Hives will clear up on their own, but the process can take months.

Eczema Causes Oozing Bumps Like the Shingles Virus

Eczema is a rash that occurs when the skin has an exaggerated inflammatory response to an irritant. Eczema can result in red, dry, and extremely itchy patches on the skin. In some people, eczema will cause oozing bumps, a condition that could be mistaken for the shingles rash. Eczema cannot be cured, but most people can control it by identifying and avoiding the allergic triggers that cause the condition.

Ringworm or Shingles Virus: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Ringworm is an infectious skin disease that, despite its name, is caused by a fungus, whereas the shingles rash is caused by a virus. Ringworm infection causes red, itchy, scaly patches on your skin, often in several places at once. Sometimes the patches blister and ooze, much like the shingles rash. Ringworm is most common in children, and it spreads easily through skin-to-skin contact or contact with an item contaminated with the fungus, like dirty clothes or a shower floor.

Herpes Simplex Is Mistaken for the Shingles Rash

Herpes simplex type 1 causes blisters or sores on the mouth, lips, and face, and is transmitted by contact with saliva containing the virus. Herpes simplex type 2 is sexually transmitted and causes similar sores and ulcers on and around the genitals. Either type of herpes remains dormant in the body and can cause future outbreaks. The blisters caused by herpes simplex could be mistaken for those caused by the shingles virus, but herpes sores are usually localized around the mouth or genitals.

Facts About Fungal Infection Blisters

Fungal infections other than ringworm can also cause rashes and blisters like those of the shingles rash. Athlete's foot causes the skin of the feet to peel, crack, and blister. Jock itch causes red, itchy welts along the groin, thigh, and buttocks. Yeast infections, also called cutaneous candidiasis, can cause itchy, scaly red rashes on the skin that sometimes pimple or ooze clear liquid.

Measles: Another Viral Infection

Like the shingles rash and herpes simplex, measles is caused by a virus. Measles is highly contagious; symptoms of measles include a fever followed by coughing and a runny nose. An itchy skin rash appears, normally starting around the face and neck and spreading down the body. Measles can result in serious complications; as many as 20 percent of measles patients develop an ear infection, diarrhea, or pneumonia. Fortunately, measles can be prevented with a measles vaccine.

The Latest in Shingles

Shingles Treatment and Prevention: How Effective Are Vaccines and Medications?

There is a vaccine that can help prevent shingles, but if you do get the viral infection, prompt treatment with antivirals can help.

Shingles Signs, Symptoms, and Complications

Pain in one area of the body and a rash with blisters are very common in shingles.

Shingles Resources

If think you might have shingles, you should see your doctor or go to an urgent care clinic immediately. The following links provide information on shingles...

CDC Committee Gives Green Light to Shingles Vaccine for Immunocompromised Adults

People with immunodeficiency or immunosuppression are at higher risk of shingles infection and complications.

New Shingles Vaccine Found to Be More Effective

The second shingles vaccine on the market is recommended for healthy adults age 50 and older.

Life With — and After — Shingles

For people like Karen Greenberg, shingles is a debilitating virus with life- changing consequences.

Stress Management Tips for Shingles Patients

Avoid stress and you may be able to avoid worsening shingles symptoms.

When Shingles Affects the Scalp

Shingles can be particularly difficult to manage if the rash spreads to your scalp. Gentle hair care and scalp treatment can help prevent permanent damage...

Read more on: beauty, skin