Shingles Signs, Symptoms, and Complications

While shingles is very rarely life-threatening, it can cause a painful rash anywhere on your body.

It usually appears as a single stripe of blisters that wraps around one side of your torso, or in some cases on one side of your face, neck, or around one eye.

There is a vaccine available for people ages 50 and older as well as for people ages 18 and older who are immunocompromised that works to prevent shingles.

What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?

The pain caused by shingles can be mild for some and intense for others.

Shingles blisters most often appear on one side of the torso, notes the CDC. It can as also occur on one side of the face, or in or around the eye, or in rare cases, all over the body.

And in some instances, there is no pain, says Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the nerve unit and skin biopsy lab at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

What Is Postherpetic Neuralgia?

In some instances, people who’ve had shingles may experience postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), in which pain persists well after the blisters go away. This happens because the shingles-damaged nerves continue to send pain signals to the brain.

There are several factors that can lead to postherpetic neuralgia. “Anything that depresses immunity can increase your risk,” says Dr. Oaklander.

She adds: “The severity of postherpetic neuralgia gradually eases over time in everyone, but the rate of resolution can vary. As you get older, your postherpetic neuralgia typically lasts longer and longer. Senior citizens, who are the most at risk for zoster, have substantial risk of postherpetic neuralgia lasting over a year, and sometimes for the rest of their lives.”

“If you have a lot of pain before the rash, it puts you at much higher risk for postherpetic neuralgia,” adds Joseph Safdieh, MD, professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

  • Severe pain
  • Severe rash
  • Older age
  • Involvement of the eye
  • Lymphoma, leukemia, and other diseases that suppress the immune system
  • Autoimmune conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis
  • HIV
  • Diabetes
  • Recent trauma
  • Personality disorder

Can You Get Shingles in the Eye?

If you have the shingles rash around your eye, or even felt a shingles-like pain in the area, it's important to see an eye doctor right away.

Shingles in the eye tends to show up either inside the eyelid or on the surface of the eyeball. “The cornea is a common place to see shingles,” says Rebecca Taylor, MD, an ophthalmologist with Nashville Vision Associates in Tennessee. “It’s the clear domed tissue that you put contacts on.”

Shingles also often appears on the conjunctiva, she adds, which is the clear tissue that covers the whites of your eye and the inside of your eyelid.

There’s also a pattern in the rash to look out for, says Dr. Taylor. “If you have blisters on the tip of your nose, that’s a strong predictor of there being inflammation inside the eye.”

Can Shingles Lead to Other Complications?

Common symptoms of Ramsay Hunt syndrome include:

  • A painful red rash with fluid-filled blisters on, in, and around one ear
  • Facial weakness or paralysis on the same side as the affected ear

Less common symptoms include:

  • Ear pain
  • Hearing loss
  • Ringing in your ears (tinnitus)
  • Difficulty closing one eye
  • A sensation of spinning or moving (vertigo)
  • A change in taste perception or loss of taste
  • Dry mouth and eyes

Be sure to call your doctor if you experience any symptoms of Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Prompt treatment within three days of symptoms may help prevent complications including permanent hearing loss and facial weakness.

Can You Get Secondary Skin Infections?

A bacterial infection may occur with the shingles rash, for which antibacterial agents may be prescribed.

Additional reporting by Carlene Bauer.

Resources We Love

U.S. National Library of Medicine Genetics Home Reference

Here you'll find a focus on the role of genetics in shingles. Research has suggested that certain genes may be associated with whether people develop shingles or post-herpetic neuropathy.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC has a comprehensive guide to shingles, including information about symptoms, transmission, complications, treatment, and vaccination.

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