How Do I Know If I Have Shingles?

If you had chickenpox as a child, you might recall the itchy, spotted rash that popped up on your face and body. The varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox stays inside your body for many years.

Once you're older, that same virus can wake up and cause shingles, also called herpes zoster. It gives you a rash, too, but it's often more painful than itchy.

A blistering rash on one side of your body can be a sign you have it. See your doctor to find out for sure. Once you've been diagnosed, you can get treated to help relieve your rash and other symptoms.

The Telltale Signs

Your doctor will first ask whether you've had chickenpox and look at your symptoms. A rash is the main sign of shingles. Often your doctor can tell that you have it from your skin alone.

A shingles rash:

  • Appears on one side of your body and/or face
  • Stings, burns, and/or itches
  • Starts as red bumps that form into blisters

Other conditions also cause rashes that look like shingles. Your doctor might check to see if you have:

Contact dermatitis: A skin reaction caused by an allergy to latex, metals, chemicals, or drugs

Candidal infection: It comes from a type of yeast called Candida

Dermatis herpetiformis: A rash that some people with celiac disease can get

Impetigo: A skin infection caused by bacteria

Insect bites: Sometimes, they can look like shingles

Folliculitis: The tiny holes that hairs grow out of can get inflamed

Scabies: A skin condition caused by a small bug called a mite

One way to tell shingles from these conditions is by the other symptoms that come with it. You can also have:

Tests

Doctors rarely test for shingles unless the rash alone isn't enough to make a diagnosis. Some people get tested because they're at higher risk for complications. You might have a test done if you:

Continued

Doctors use two types of tests to diagnose chickenpox or shingles:

Antibody: When you're exposed to varicella zoster, your immune system makes proteins to fight it. Your doctor can look for these proteins, called antibodies, in a sample of your blood. He takes the sample from a vein in your arm. These tests might be able to tell whether you have chickenpox now or have had it in the past, but the results are often hard to interpret.

Viral detection: This test can find out if varicella zoster is inside a sample of your cells. To collect the sample, your doctor can:

  • Scrape off cells and fluid from a blister
  • Pull fluid from your spine with a needle

Your doctor should have the results in 1 to 3 days. You might need to have a second test if the results aren't clear.

Your symptoms and test results will show whether you have shingles. Once you've been diagnosed, you can start on treatment to help you feel better.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 13, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

AACC: "Chickenpox and Shingles Tests."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Shingles Overview."

CDC: "Shingles Diagnosis & Testing," "Shingles Signs & Symptoms."

Daniels, R. Delmar's Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, July 2009.

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases: "Facts About Chickenpox and Shingles for Adults."

University of Maryland Medical Center, “Varicella-zoster virus.”

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