Shingles Treatment

How you can find relief

Female patient sitting on exam table in exam room
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Shingles is a painful rash caused by the same virus that causes the chickenpox. If you had chickenpox as the child, the shingles virus is already inside you. Shingles occurs when the varicella-zoster, or chickenpox virus, reactivates. It travels through the nerves into the skin and causes a rash.

Initial symptoms of shingles include itching, tingling or pain caused even by the lighted tough. Headache, sensitivity to light, and exhaustion are also common.

A few days after symptoms appear, a rash begins as a patch of redness to quickly progresses to blister-like clusters that last up to 5 days. 

What Treatment Can Do

Shingles is usually diagnosed solely based on the appearance of the rash and the patient's medical history. Certain shingles treatment options can help speed up healing the rash and decrease the duration and pain of the rash. It also makes post-herpetic neuralgia less likely to occur, or less severe if it does occur. Post-herpetic neuralgia is a painful condition that occurs after shingles has gone away.

Antivirals & Corticosteroids

It's important to understand shingles symptoms to be able to recognize them when they first appear. If you have a normal and healthy immune system, shingles treatment is typically most effective if you get medication within 72 hours (3 days) of developing a rash. Your doctor may prescribe drugs known as corticosteroids and antivirals for shingles, such as Acyclovir.

If you have a weakened immune system, you will probably receive similar treatment, but you will need to be more closely monitored by your health care providers. Your doctor probably won't prescribe corticosteroids because they are riskier to take when you have a weakened immune system.

Always see your doctor for specific treatment options.

Treating Shingles Symptoms & Pain

Shingles is an extremely painful, uncomfortable illness. Symptoms often feel unbearable, but there are a few things you can do to get relief. First, apply a soft, sterile, non-sticky dressing or bandage over your lesions to protect your skin from clothing. It will also prevent others from coming in direct contact with open wounds. For pain related to acute cases of shingles, opioids are usually necessary.

To prevent or treat post-herpetic neuralgia, the American Academy of Neurology states that any of the following may be necessary:

  • Antidepressant drugs; specifically tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline, nortriptyline, and desipramine
  • Anticonvulsants, such as gabapentin (Neurontin) or pregabalin (Lyrica)
  • Pain medications, either anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, or opioids, such as morphine sustained-release or fentanyl patches
  • Topical anesthetics, such as lidocaine gels or patches, which should be applied to healed, intact skin only.
  • Capsaicin, which is the active ingredient in chili peppers

    Shingles Treatment for Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus

    In addition to post-herpetic neuralgia, there are many other complications of shingles, including herpes zoster ophthalmicus. It is a serious complication that can occur if the shingles virus affects a certain nerve around the eye. People who are suspected to have this complication are treated with an oral antiviral medication, such as those listed above, and they should also follow up with an ophthalmologist.


    Dubinsky, R.M., et al. "Practice Parameter: Treatment of Posterpetic Neuralgia." Neurology 63(2004): 959-65.

    Finch, Roger, Dennis Maki, Allan Ronald. "Varicella-Zoster Virus Infections." Infectious Diseases, 2nd edition. Ed. Jonathan Cohen, et al. New York: Mosby, 2004. 125-9.

    Gnann, John, and Richard Whitley. "Herpes Zoster." The New England Journal of Medicine 347(2002): 340-6.

    Stalkup, Jennifer, et al. "Human Herpesviruses." Dermatology. Ed. Jean L Bolognia, MD, et al. London: Mosby, 2003. 1241-4.

    Continue Reading