What are the symptoms of shingles, and does shingles make you tired?

Wondering if you have the symptoms of shingles? Here's everything you need to know about the infection

illustration of woman itching arm
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Wondering if you're experiencing the symptoms of shingles and not sure what to do next? Don't worry, we've got you covered. Here's everything you need to know about the most common symptoms of shingles, and if it really is the reason behind your tiredness. 

It's estimated that one in four of us will experience shingles at one point in our lives. Also known as herpes zoster, shingles is an infection of a nerve and the skin around it. It's caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox.

"Shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, but usually only in one nerve root. Usually, the virus lies dormant and doesn't cause any problems, but if your immune system (which normally protects your body against infection) is weakened the virus can become active again and cause shingles," explains Dr. Samantha Wild, Clinical Lead for Women's Health and GP at Bupa UK.

It's not possible to have shingles if you've never been exposed to chickenpox or the varicella virus that causes it. However, if you've never had chickenpox and then become exposed to someone with shingles, you may then get chickenpox. 

"If you have a weakened immune system, it’s best to avoid someone with shingles," adds Dr. Wild, "If you're pregnant and haven’t had chickenpox, you should avoid anyone with shingles, too. These general rules are to be on the safe side, as it's usually direct contact with the rash that passes the virus on."

Concerned you might have the infection and want to know more about the symptoms of shingles? Here we explore the most common effects and what your treatment options could be if you do have shingles. 

What are the symptoms of shingles in adults?

"The first symptom of shingles is often oversensitivity or a painful burning sensation either on the face, chest, back, abdomen or pelvis, usually on one side of the body," explains Dr. Wild. 

You might also have a high temperature, or feel unwell for a few days before a rash  appears on your skin. 

Once a rash does develop, it usually starts as small, raised red spots before turning into small blisters full of cloudy fluid. "These blisters dry up after 5-7 days and form scabs that usually drop off within 2-3 weeks", adds Dr. Wild. 

"If you’re worried you have shingles, you should check for red blotches on the skin on one side of your body," Dr. Wild says. "A rash on both the left and right of your body is unlikely to be shingles. Shingles can affect both sides of the body, but it’s very rare—usually only in those with a weakened immune system. Shingles blotches can become painful and will blister. Your skin around the infected area will remain painful or uncomfortable until the rash has completely disappeared." 

As with chicken pox, you should avoid scratching the rash as it can leave scars. 

Does shingles make you tired?

Many people often say they feel extremely tired during, and even after, the infection. Sufferers will normally feel fatigue, but it's not the shingles that has made them feel that way.

Marian Nicholson, Director of Shingles Support Society, explains, “It’s more likely that whatever has been the trigger for your outbreak has made you tired. For example, we often find that a person was unwell or overtired, or had an operation or even bereavement, and this stress or exhaustion occurred before shingles appears".

"The tiredness and general feelings of being unwell will most likely be gone within four weeks—at most, six weeks," Dr. Wild adds. 

To help combat this tiredness, she recommends building relaxation techniques into your daily routine. "It can really help you to relax before bed and improve your sleep." 

Pay particular attention to your bedtime routine around this time and make sure you have lots of wind-down time planned. Whether that's having a bath, listening to relaxing music, practicing sleep-guided meditations or doing some gentle bedtime yoga

How long does shingles last?

How long shingles lasts will depend on the individual, but Dr. Wild tells us it usually lasts around three to five weeks. 

"Your skin may be painful or uncomfortable after the rash has gone, however, this usually settles over time," she adds. 

People with shingles should stay away from pregnant women who have not had chickenpox before, people with a weakened immune system, and babies less than one month old—unless it's your own baby.

Is there a treatment for shingles?

While there is no cure for shingles, there are treatments out there that can be done at home or prescribed by your doctor to speed up recovery and ease symptoms. 

"If your skin is very itchy in places, you can try using cool or wet compresses to ease the itch," suggests Dr. Wild. "You can also take paracetamol if you have any pain or a fever."

Dr. Wild also suggests wearing smooth, cotton fabrics as they are less likely to irritate your skin, and to keep your rash clean and dry so you reduce the risk of infection.

When to see a doctor about shingles 

If you notice any symptoms of shingles, Dr. Wild suggests contacting your doctor for a phone or video appointment to discuss your symptoms further. 

"You might need medicine to help speed up your recovery and avoid longer-lasting problems. In any case, your doctor will be able to help," Dr. Wild adds