Shingles is a viral illness that affects a variety of locations throughout the body. It most often causes a painful skin rash on the trunk, abdomen or torso. Less commonly, the rash can be found on the arms or legs. Shingles may also affect the head, face, eyes, mouth or ear. The varicella-zoster virus causes both shingles and chicken pox. After recovery from chicken pox, the virus remains inactive in the nervous system, reactivating later in life in one or more parts of the body as shingles.
Most Common Locations
Shingles is a painful, usually blistering skin rash typically found on one side of the body, wrapping around the trunk or waist. But it can appear anywhere from the head, arms, chest, abdomen or buttocks down to the feet. Shingles typically begins with a localized sensation of burning or tingling pain lasting 1 to 3 days. The painful area then develops a raised, red rash that wraps around one side of the body in a wide, patchy band. Blisters usually develop and scab before healing. The illness generally lasts between 2 and 5 weeks. The specific location and side of the body affected correspond to the nerve in which the virus has been reactivated. Shingles can appear on more than one location or side of the body, but it most commonly appears in only one area.
Face and Head Involvement
When an outbreak of shingles occurs on the head or face, it also typically is found on one side of the scalp, face, mouth or neck or in one eye or ear. As with the rash on the body, the location corresponds to a reactivation of the virus within a nerve. The nerves that supply sensation and motor function to the head and face are called cranial nerves. In addition to causing a painful, blistering red skin rash on the face or head, shingles involving a cranial nerve may cause weakness of the corresponding face muscles. Shingles involving the inside of the mouth or ear may cause ulcers and problems with taste or hearing.
About 1 in 7 people with shingles experience eye symptoms. When shingles affects the eye, it can manifest as a skin rash near one eye, redness and pain of the eye itself, difficulty moving the eye or eyelid and even vision loss. Shingles of the eye, called ocular shingles, is a serious condition that requires urgent medical attention.
Besides the symptoms that correspond to a specific nerve location such as pain, rash, ulcers, face weakness, vision changes and taste or hearing problems, generalized symptoms that affect the whole body often accompany a shingles outbreak. Shingles can result in fatigue, fever, chills, swollen glands, aches, pains and headaches. These symptoms usually begin before the localized pain and rash, and they resolve around the same time that the blisters heal.