If you have shingles or know anyone who’s had it, you know the pain can be intense. The sooner you start shingles treatment — ideally within three days after the rash appears — the sooner you’ll get relief, and the better your chances of avoiding a nerve condition called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) will be. PHN causes burning pain and stinging that lasts long after the shingles rash is gone.
What is shingles?
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a viral infection that causes a red, blistering and typically very painful rash. It occurs in people who have had chickenpox. The same virus, the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), is to blame for both infections.
After you recover from chickenpox, VZV remains in the roots of your spinal nerves for life. Normally, your immune system keeps it dormant, but the virus can be reactivated when your immune system is weakened by age, disease, stress or medications that suppress it.
Shingles is most common in people over 50. Rates have been rising in younger and middle-aged adults, but the reasons are unclear. Children can get shingles, but shingles in children is uncommon.
Shingles symptoms occur in stages. Early shingles causes pain, tingling or burning in the area where the rash will develop. These symptoms last for a day or two, and then the shingles rash appears, usually on one side of the body, often in bands. Scattered blisters may appear on other areas of your body.
In addition to pain, some people experience muscle aches, fever, headache, stomach pain or vomiting. As the rash clears, the blisters break, bleed and scab over. The shingles rash usually disappears in two to four weeks.
The dermatology providers at Riverchase Dermatology know how painful shingles can be and are ready to help ease the pain and reduce your risk of complications. Possible complications of shingles include not only PHN but also, if the rash develops near your eye, permanent vision damage. In very rare cases, shingles can cause pneumonia, hearing difficulties or brain inflammation.
We strongly recommend making an appointment ASAP if you think you have shingles. You’ll receive a prescription for an antiviral medication, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir or famciclovir, to shorten the duration of symptoms and prevent the rash from getting worse. Antivirals are most effective when you start them within three days after the rash appears, but it’s worth making an appointment if you miss this window because the medication can still provide some benefit.
If your shingles pain is intense and hasn’t responded to over-the-counter pain relievers, you may be prescribed pain medicine or given an injection of corticosteroids.
If you haven’t had shingles yet, talk to your doctor about getting the shingles vaccine (Shingrix). It’s available for people 50 and older, and you may be able to get it sooner if you take medication that suppresses your immune system or have a medical condition that compromises it. If you’ve already had shingles, you should still get vaccinated to protect against another bout of the virus.