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11 Symptoms of Shingles You Might Be Ignoring

Symptoms of shingles sometimes but not always include a painful rash caused by a reactivation of the chicken pox virus. Here are other signs.

Doctor examining a man's back in the doctor's office.iStock/kali9

Shingles symptom: Painful blisters

It can sometimes be difficult to figure out why you might have painful blisters on your body. You might think a painful rash is due to an allergy, or maybe even bug bites. But painful blisters can sometimes be a sign of shingles, a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (the same virus that causes chicken pox) that can be extraordinarily painful. “Some people mistake shingles blisters for spider bites, says Tracy Lippard, MD, a geriatrician for Kaiser Permanente in Longmont, Colorado. “Getting care quickly is important, as the medication to treat shingles works best if it’s started within three days of the rash.”

Woman sitting on a park bench scratching her arm.iStock/champja

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 in Gahanna, Ohio. “It never crosses the midline.”

Person holding their glasses outside during a sunset.iStock/Qi-Yang

Shingles symptom: Sensitivity to light

A sudden sensitivity to bright light, whether sunshine or fluorescent lighting, can be a subtle sign that something is amiss. According to Larisa Geskin, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, it may mimic the feeling of a mild migraine coming on.

Woman in bed with a box of tissues, blowing her nose.iStock/South_agency

Shingles symptom: Flu-like feeling

Got your flu shot but 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.)

Doctor examining a patient's arm and skin.iStock/Willie B. Thomas

Shingles symptom: Line of red bumps

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. That means they are usually linear and in a pattern related to the branches of the spinal nerve that innervates that section of the skin.

Man working at his laptop holding his forehead with one hand.iStock/Geber86

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 in New York. 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.

Man outside clutching his chest.iStock/Jan-Otto

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 Morrisa board-certified internist in Atlanta. (Vesicles are fluid-filled blisters.) According to Dr. Morris, chest pain that feels itchy and painful to the touch could be an early sign of shingles. (Your chest pain could mean you have one of these other conditions, too.)

Man in a suit outside holding his head as if having a headache.iStock/pixelheadphoto

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.

Man sitting on the couch holding his back as if having a backache.iStock/dolgachov

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 in New York. “There are a few patients who have shingles and no rash.” In those cases, a blood test can help with the diagnosis.

Man in his garage workshop rubbing his eye.iStock/Fertnig

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.”

Shingles symptom: Sharp, stabbing pain

“Shingles pain usually has a sharp stabbing, burning, intensely itchy, or pins-and-needles quality,” says Alison Lynch, MD, a primary care physician in San Diego, California. 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. Consider taking one of these over-the-counter medicines that ease every type of aches and pains.

Sources
  • Tracy Lippard, MD, geriatrician for Kaiser Permanente, Longmont, CO.
  • Randy Wexler, MD, family physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Gahanna, OH.
  • Patrick Fratellone, MD, integrative physician and registered herbalist, New York, NY.
  • Evan Rieder, MD, dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, New York, NY.
  • Larisa Geskin, MD, associate professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY.
  • Sylvia Morris, MD, board-certified internist, Atlanta, GA.
  • Kristine Arthur, MD, board-certified internist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, Fountain Valley, CA.
  • Alison Lynch, MD, primary care physician, San Diego, CA.
Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, MD, on November 12, 2019

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer and writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and Realtor.com., among others. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.