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How to soothe shingles pain

Published: June 13, 2023

Written by: Rona Cherry

Woman in a rain coat sitting atop a bench at the peak of a mountain overlooking other mountains.

If you’re suffering from shingles, here are some solutions to help with relief.

In this article:

Television commercials about shingles and its associated pain may make you wince and with good reason: Shingles is serious stuff. The viral infection causes a painful skin rash and nerve infection. The first line of defense is prevention, so be sure to get a shingles vaccine if you have a weakened immune system or if you’re 50 or older — even if you’ve had shingles already.

If you’re suffering from a current case, there are tried and tested solutions to ease the pain. And if you haven’t had it yet, you’ll want to understand how the virus strikes and what you can do to stop it in its tracks.

What is shingles?

Herpes zoster, commonly known as shingles, is characterized by painful rashes caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you recover from a bout of chickenpox, your body doesn’t get rid of the virus. Instead, the virus remains dormant in your nerve cells for years, even decades. But for about one in three people, VZV may reactivate and cause shingles.

What causes shingles?

Precisely what unleashes the virus is still not known, but it often occurs when immunity to VZV is weakened by illness, certain medications, stress or age.“The strength of our immune system decreases with age, putting older patients at risk of varicella-zoster virus reactivation,” says Eric Ascher, DO, a family medicine physician affiliated with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

The virus travels along various nerve pathways to your skin, producing shingles. The shingles rash tends to appear on one side of the body, such as the torso, neck or forehead, including the skin around the eye or jaw (although it can appear anywhere). The location of the shingles rash depends on which nerves the virus travels from.

What are shingles symptoms?

Early shingles symptoms typically begin with unusual itching, burning or tingling. “You may also develop a low fever, a headache and feel down and out and generally flu-ish,” says Danilo Del Campo, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist at the Chicago Skin Clinic. Within days, a painful rash develops along with a cluster of fluid-filled blisters that scab over in 7 to 10 days.

How long does shingles last?

Most cases of shingles clear up in two to four weeks, according to the CDC. But even after the rash is gone, 10 to 18 percent of people will experience deep burning, sometimes stabbing, nerve pain — a chronic condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). It’s uncommon in people younger than 60, but the incidence increases dramatically with age.

Although not common, the pain from PHN can last for months or years. “The pain can become so intense that the slightest movement or touch can feel unbearable,” says Dr. Ascher.

Is shingles contagious?

According to the CDC, people with shingles cannot spread the virus before their rash blisters appear. However, once the blisters are evident, contact with their fluid can spread VZV to people who haven’t received the chickenpox vaccine or haven’t previously had the condition. If infected, they will develop chickenpox, and may develop shingles later in life.

The risk of spreading VZV to others is low if you cover your shingles rash or after the rash crusts over. You remain contagious until all blisters have formed a scab, approximately 7 to 10 days later.

How to treat shingles

If you think you’re having a shingles outbreak, make every effort to see a health care provider immediately. While no medicine can eliminate the virus that causes shingles, early treatment is critical to lessen the pain, to shorten the length and severity of the outbreak and to reduce your risk of developing PHN. “It’s important to see your doctor within 72 hours after you first feel pain or a burning sensation,” says Dr. Del Campo. “The sooner you treat, the sooner you’ll hopefully feel better.”

How to soothe shingles pain with medication

Treatment of shingles includes a combination of either over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription antiviral and pain-relieving medications. To help relieve minor discomfort, your doctor might prescribe an OTC medication, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil).

Experts also suggest taking an antiviral medication only available by prescription that your provider may recommend. The antiviral medication should be taken as soon as possible after the rash emerges to shorten a shingles attack and ease the pain of the rash.

To soothe itchy skin, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests applying a clean, cool, moist washcloth to the rash and blisters, soaking in a cool oatmeal bath, applying a thin layer of petroleum jelly or calming your skin with calamine lotion after the shingle blisters have scabbed over. You might also try over-the-counter treatments, such as Terrasil Shingles Skincare Ointment.

For lingering pain, your health care provider may prescribe a variety of other treatments. These include:

  • Capsaicin (an extract of chili pepper), which works to desensitize receptors that cause people to experience pain. Available in creams and patches, it is also frequently used for arthritis pain relief.

  • Skin surface numbing products, such as lidocaine, available in numerous formulations like creams, patches, roll-ons and sprays. One 2020 study published in the journal Dermatologic Therapy found that a 5% lidocaine patch was “well-tolerated and ensured rapid pain relief.”

  • Prescription anticonvulsants that work as pain relievers by changing the way nerves send messages to your brain.

  • Corticosteroids to reduce swelling and pain (though researchers caution about possible side effects).

How to prevent shingles

To prevent shingles, “vaccination is the best line of protection,” says Dr. Ascher. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two doses separated by two to six months for adults age 50 and older, even if you’ve been vaccinated or had shingles before.

If you’ve had shingles in the past, there’s no specific length of time that you need to wait, according to the CDC. You can get vaccinated at your doctor’s office or your local CVS Pharmacy® or MinuteClinic®. Protection from the virus should last at least seven years.

Shingles vaccine side effects

As with all vaccines, you may experience side effects. According to the CDC, the side effects from current shingles vaccines might last two to three days and include:

  • Feeling tired

  • A fever

  • A headache

  • Muscle pain

  • Nausea

  • Redness/swelling at the injection site

  • A sore arm

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a nervous system disorder reported in rare cases after a dose. Note, however, that there is also a very small increased risk of GBS after having shingles.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements, and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.