11 Symptoms of Shingles You Might Be Ignoring
Shingles is a painful rash caused by the chicken pox virus, which can stay dormant in our system and get reactivated later in life. If you missed the shingles vaccine, check the signs that you could have this viral infection.
Shingles symptom: Painful blisters
Painful blisters aren’t usually harmless bug bites. “Some people mistake shingles blisters for spider bites, says Tracy Lippard, MD, geriatrician for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. “Getting care quickly is important, as the medication to treat shingles works best if it’s started within three days of the rash.” (Check out these eight diseases that are written all over your face—literally.)
Shingles symptom: Skin irritation on one side of the body
This is one of the hallmark symptoms of shingles, also called herpes zoster. “Shingles is always on one side of the body,” says Randy Wexler, MD, a family physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It never crosses the midline.” If you find a rash on both sides of your body, use these home remedies for rashes to get relief. (Dermatologists say you should never ever do these 12 things to your skin.)
Shingles symptom: Sensitivity to light
A sudden sensitivity to bright light, whether it’s sunshine or fluorescents, can be a subtle sign that something is amiss. According to Larisa Geskin, MD associate professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, it may mimic the feeling of a mild migraine coming on.
Shingles symptom: Flu-like feeling
You got your flu shot but you still feel like you’ve been hit by a truck? It could be one of the symptoms of shingles. “It’s literally like having the flu, with body aches, fatigue, and chills without fever,” says Dr. Geskin. (This is the reason why you should get the shingles vaccine if you’re over 50.)
Shingles symptom: Line of red bumps
iStock/Willie B. Thomas
Red bumps in a certain pattern on your body could be one of the early symptoms of shingles. The rash can start with red bumps anywhere on the body, and usually takes a shape known as “dermatomal,” according to Dr. Geskin, meaning it’s linear. (Here is the first thing your dermatologist notices about your skin when you walk into the examination room.)
Shingles trigger: Stress
It’s no secret that stress can wreak havoc on the immune system, but it can also be a trigger for shingles. “Stressors such as hospitalization for a medical illness or a huge financial setback may be overwhelming,” says Evan Rieder, MD, a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. According to Dr. Rieder, even mild stressors like a sleepless night or a runny nose can weaken the body’s immune system and allow reactivation of the virus that causes chicken pox and shingles. (Make sure you don’t miss these eight signs that stress is making you sick.)
Shingles symptom: Chest pain
Chest pain is scary but it’s not always a symptom of a heart attack. “Prior to the appearance of vesicles on the chest, patients may experience sharp or burning pain,” says Sylvia Morris, MD, a board-certified internist in Atlanta. According to Dr. Morris, chest pain that feels itchy and painful to the touch could be an early sign of shingles. (Here’s everything you need to know about a shingles diagnosis.)
Shingles symptom: Headache
A nagging headache can come from stress, allergies, a reaction to certain foods—or the onset of shingles. A shingles-onset headache is unilateral, meaning it’s felt on only one side of the head. “The headache may be centered around the eye, the top of the head, or the forehead,” Dr. Morris says.
Shingles symptom: Pain
It’s easy to ignore minor aches and pains, especially in middle age, but pay attention to the location. “One symptom that people might ignore is pain in a certain area even with no evidence of a rash,” says Patrick Fratellone, MD, an integrative physician and registered herbalist practicing in New York City. “There are a few patients who have shingles and no rash.” In those cases, a blood test can help with the diagnosis.
Shingles symptom: Pain around one eye
If you get migraines, you may be inclined to dismiss this as yet another headache. But don’t ignore this nuance because it could be one of the symptoms of shingles. “If you develop pain and tingling in the eye area along with any type of rash, see a doctor immediately,” says Kristine Arthur, MD, a board-certified internist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “If left untreated, it could cause blindness.” (Make sure you know these surprising ways you’re straining your eyes without even realizing it.)
Shingles symptom: Sharp, stabbing pain
“Shingles pain usually has a sharp stabbing or burning or intensely itchy or pins and needles quality,” says Alison Lynch, MD, a family medicine physician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. It usually shows up in the trunk area of the body, including the chest, and upper and lower back. Dr. Lynch says this symptom can begin several days before the rash appears. Keep an eye out for these over-the-counter medicines that ease every type of aches and pains.