A common question that people have is how long does shingles last? It can be challenging to know the answer because it varies by person. For most cases, the average duration of shingles is between three to five weeks, but there are exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. Shingles can last as little as a few days or as long as several months in rare cases.
The presentation of shingles typically looks like this:
The first symptoms include fever, headaches, chills, and sensitivity to light, which are systemic symptoms that occur even before rashes start to appear. This is known as the prodromal stage. A telltale sign that this may not just be the typical flu is when there is burning or tingling pain accompanied by itchiness; occasionally, it includes numbness on one side of the body. It is reported that rashes typically start to develop anywhere from one to five days after one begins to feel the tingling or burning sensation on the skin. These rashes cluster along nerve pathways and may be accompanied by a sharp pain in the rash area.
After a few days, these rashes turn into fluid-filled blisters that look similar to chickenpox. There may also be new blisters popping out over the next several days. While it is possible, these blisters usually do not spread over your whole body but are instead limited to mostly the torso and face. This is the stage when one is most infectious, and direct contact with the active blisters should be avoided. Items contaminated with fluid from the blisters should be thoroughly washed or disinfected as the virus can be transferred to others in this way. It is also recommended that scratching of the blisters is kept to a minimum, as this may cause scarring of the skin.
About a week to 10 days later, the open blisters start to ooze fluid and slowly dry up and crust over. This is when scabs begin to form. This stage typically lasts for another one to two weeks. There is now less risk of spreading the virus. However, one should continue to be vigilant in practicing infection control, and good practices include washing hands after touching the blistered area.
While the onset of shingles is often mistaken for more common skin conditions like skin allergy, cellulitis, eczema, or insect bites, it is essential to seek early treatment for shingles to diminish the pain, itching, and other symptoms. Generally speaking, you should see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect that you have shingles. This is especially important if you.
- Are over 60 years old
- Are known to be immunocompromised (with a weakened immune system, such as in the case of HIV) or take immunosuppressive medication (e.g., chemotherapy drugs or steroids)
- You live with someone who has a weakened immune system.
- Having a rash on your face or near your eye could lead to severe eye damage or even cause you to lose sight in that eye.
The doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir, which is most effective when started within 72 hours of the onset of the rash. If not treated promptly and correctly, this condition can have debilitating effects such as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). One continues to suffer from mild or extreme pain even after the rash is gone, which can last for several months or longer. Other complications resulting from shingles include long-term nerve pain, full or partial blindness (if shingles spread to the eyes), pneumonia, hearing loss, brain inflammation, and even death.