How Long Does Shingles Last?

Medically Reviewed By Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
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Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that leads to chickenpox. It is characterizable as a severely painful, itchy rash. It is also known as herpes zoster. If you have previously had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) lives in your body in an inactive state for the rest of your life. Sometimes, it can reactivate and cause shingles.

The shingles rash usually lasts 3–5 weeks, during which time it goes through different stages.

This article covers what shingles is and how to recognize the stages and symptoms. It also discusses shingles treatments and when to contact a doctor.

Key facts about shingles

  • Shingles can appear later in life if you have had chickenpox.
  • It is characterizable as a severely painful, itchy, or tingly rash.
  • The VZV causes both shingles and chickenpox.
  • Shingles typically lasts around 3–5 weeks.
  • Symptoms of shingles change as the condition develops.
  • Another name for shingles is herpes zoster.

Read the full article for more information.

What is shingles?

A woman is holding her arm.
Trinette Reed/Stocksy United

Around 1 million people in the United States get shingles every year. Shingles occurs due to the reactivation of the VZV.

The first time you encounter the virus, you may get chickenpox. Chickenpox is a painful, itchy rash that forms all over the body. After the chickenpox illness has resolved, the virus continues to live in the nerves.

Later in life, the VZV can reactivate in a nerve and cause shingles to break out on the skin. About 1 in 3 adults experience shingles. After having shingles once, it is very rare to have it occur again. 

Visit our shingles hub for more information.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

The symptoms of shingles change as the condition goes through various stages. They can include:

These symptoms can help you work out how developed your shingles is.

Around 1–2 days before the rash appears, your skin may have an unusual sensation, like a burning, tingling, or “electrical” sensation. This can happen on the skin where the rash will appear.

Approximately 1–14 days later, the rash will be present. The rash typically only affects one side of the body and a clustered area. A common area is the torso, but shingles can form anywhere on the body

The rash is usually quite painful, and it can range from mild to severe. Over a few days, the rash progresses into blisters filled with a clear fluid.

Symptoms that indicate that the infection is going away are blisters that become cloudy and crust over. This process occurs about 7–10 days after the blisters first appear.

After about 2–4 weeks, the scabs are usually fully healed. 

Learn more about the symptoms of shingles here.

How long does shingles last?

From beginning to end, most cases of shingles last 3–5 weeks.

Ongoing pain can occur, however. One of the most common complications of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which affects around 5–20% of people with shingles. It occurs when pain in the area where the rash was continues long after the rash goes away. It can also involve itchiness or oversensitivity to light touch.

PHN can last several weeks, months, or even years after the shingles has gone away. Sometimes, the pain is severe enough to interfere with daily activities.

PHN usually decreases over time, but researchers do not yet have a clear timeline for this.

Is there medication for shingles?

There is currently no cure for shingles, but it is treatable with antiviral medications to decrease the severity of the pain and reduce the risk of PHN.

Antivirals for shingles include:

  • acyclovir
  • valacyclovir
  • famciclovir

To help control pain, doctors sometimes prescribe:

  • topical lidocaine
  • topical capsaicin
  • oral gabapentin
  • pregabalin
  • tricyclic antidepressants

Are there home remedies for treating shingles?

Although shingles will usually go away on its own once it has run its course and the scabs have healed, you can take steps at home to help alleviate pain and discomfort.

Some home remedies for treating shingles include:

  • taking cool oatmeal baths
  • applying calamine lotion to soothe your skin
  • applying cool compresses to the blisters
  • wearing loose clothing made from cotton or linen

When possible, try also doing activities that help take your mind off the pain. These activities can include watching a TV series, reading a book, listening to music, or talking with a friend.

Telling a family member or friend about how the pain is affecting you can also help.

How common is shingles?

Currently, around 20–30% of people experience shingles at some point in their life.

The U.S. introduced a chickenpox vaccine in 1995, and the number of chickenpox cases has dropped by around 76–85% since then. This means that, over time, the number of people with the VZV in their system is likely to decrease.

Shingles may become less prevalent as children who received the chickenpox vaccine grow into adulthood.

When should I contact a doctor for shingles symptoms?

As soon as you believe that you may be experiencing a shingles infection, let your doctor know. Starting treatment with an antiviral medication within 3 days of your rash appearing can help decrease the severity of your infection and prevent PHN. 

Even if you have had the rash for longer than 3 days, contact your doctor for advice on how to proceed with treatment.

Can I prevent shingles?

Receiving the shingles vaccine is the most effective way of preventing shingles. It is advisable to get the shingles vaccine if you:

  • are over the age of 50 years
  • have previously had chickenpox
  • do not remember whether or not you have had chickenpox

Contact your doctor to discuss getting the shingles vaccine.

How long does the shingles vaccine last?

Currently, Shingrix is the vaccine on the market that can help decrease your risk of shingles. It also decreases your risk of PHN. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Shringrix is more than 90% effective at protecting adults ages 50 years and older who have healthy immune systems. This immunity lasts for a minimum of 7 years after the vaccination.

Adults who have weakened immune systems benefit from 68–91% effectiveness of Shingrix in preventing shingles and PHN.

The CDC recommends that the following people get the Shingrix vaccine:

  • adults over age 50 years, even if they have already had shingles
  • adults over age 19 years with weakened immune systems

Contact your doctor if you wish to discuss getting the shingles vaccine.

Learn more about shingles

Summary

Shingles is a painful rash that develops as a result of the VZV, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. From beginning to end, shingles typically lasts around 3–5 weeks.

Starting an antiviral treatment within 3 days of your rash appearing can help decrease the severity of the infection. There is also the Shingrix vaccine, which is available to adults over 50 years of age and younger adults who have weakened immune systems. 

Contact your doctor if you experience any symptoms of shingles.

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Medical Reviewer: Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 27
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