Spotting The Difference Between Shingles and Skin Rashes

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDOctober 27th, 2020
senior skin infection

Skin rashes are sneaky, uncomfortable, and sure to raise some eyebrows—especially in senior living communities and in similar communal settings where undiagnosed skin rashes can signal the alarms for a serious, potentially contagious viral infection like shingles. The easiest way to interpret skin conditions is to seek diagnosis from a medical professional, like a dermatologist. However, there are ways that you can spot the difference between an atypical skin rash and a severe skin condition like shingles—an important aid that all caregivers and senior community leaders should have in their arsenals.

Stick around as we discuss the differences in these skin conditions and the value of seeking professional medical diagnosis and care when dealing with an unknown skin rash or shingles in a dependent.


Is It a Skin Allergy?

It’s no secret: Self-diagnosing a skin condition or jumping to extreme conclusions is a bad path to travel down when questioning the health of dependents or residents in your senior living community. For skin rashes in seniors, mistaking visual markers and accompanying symptoms for another contagious, viral condition that affects the skin (like shingles) is an easy trap to fall into. If you think the skin rash is just an allergic reaction, pause and consider these common causes and symptoms of skin allergies:

Skin Allergies: Causes & Symptoms of the Reaction

Skin allergies and stress are two common causes of skin rashes, but an allergic skin reaction can look very similar to the shingles rash—making the two skin conditions difficult to differentiate. To spot the difference, it’s important to ask your resident or the elderly loved one in question about any recent changes in his or her routine. An allergic skin reaction can be caused by medication, exposure to an outdoor skin allergen (like poison oak or poison ivy), or exposure to new cosmetics (shampoo, bodywash, perfume, etc.). These allergic reactions can look like sporadic or irregularly shaped red sores on the skin. This flat or raised irritation can be itchy and bumpy, and even lead to blisters. However, unlike shingles, allergic skin rashes like this will often clear up on their own—with most gone around two weeks after exposure.

Or Is It Shingles?

Shingles is a virus that can be spread from person to person during the blister phase, reactivating the nerve tissues of at-risk individuals with the dormant chickenpox virus or causing the chickenpox in someone who has never had it or received the chickenpox vaccine. It’s important to note that shingles is much more common in both immunocompromised individuals and people over the age of 65 who have had chickenpox.

Shingles Symptoms

Caused by a virus, shingles is a common infection of the nerves that can trigger a painful skin rash that manifests into small blisters along the midsection of the body or face. Symptoms to look for in a potentially infected individual include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach
  • Skin sensitivity (tingling, itchiness, pain—especially when touching clothing)
  • Skin rash (will likely appear after one to five days after symptoms begin and will look like small, red spots)
  • Fluid-filled blisters (will likely form soon after the skin rash, scabbing over in seven to 10 days and clearing within four weeks)

While an active shingles rash (a blistering rash) is contagious, once the blisters crust over, the shingles virus is no longer infectious. Even with the blisters gone, however, an individual can experience extreme residual pain in and around the rash site.

The Shingles Belt: The Key to Spotting the Difference

The shingles “brand” or “girdle” is the easiest visual sign to spot when dealing with the active virus and a great way to tell the difference between this serious condition and a mild skin rash in seniors. Shingles classically appears around the waist or rib cage, circling the area to look like a belt. This rash formation can be wide or narrow and will typically cover only one side of the midsection.

If you believe you might have shingles, isolate to control the spread of the virus and contact a healthcare professional to complete a physical examination. A healthcare provider will quickly know if it’s shingles because of the virus’s unique, active, blistering rash. They will prescribe the needed antivirals after the visit and suggesting at-home remedies to quicken recovery time and relieve pain.

DispatchHealth Is Here to Help

DispatchHealth brings complex medical care out of an expensive hospital setting and right to your door. This enables you to be safely treated and recover faster at a dramatically lower cost. Our medical teams will come prepared with nearly all the tools and technologies found in a traditional ER setting, treating compromised individuals with shingles and skin infections who are more likely to develop severe complications from the illness.

To request care, simply contact us via phone, mobile app, or our website.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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