Coping with Shingles Pain

The visible symptoms of shingles, including its telltale rash, usually fade in a few weeks. But all too often, the pain of this infection lingers for months or years. Whether you're feeling the first twinges of shingles or living with the sting of ongoing nerve damage in its aftermath, here's how to find relief.

Seek Treatment Fast

Tingling, burning, itching, or severe pain on one side of the body are often the first signs of a shingles outbreak. At this stage, over-the-counter pain relievers may ease the ache. Try acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin).

Other symptoms of shingles include upset stomach, fever, headache, and chills. Soon, you'll develop a red rash at the site where you felt the first discomfort.

See your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect shingles. While there's no cure, taking antiviral medication within 72 hours after the rash starts can help shorten the outbreak and decrease the potential for pain.

Calming the Burn

In a few days, the red bumps of your rash will turn into fluid-filled blisters, often around your stomach or on your face. For some people, this rash causes only a mild pain. For others, radiating pain occurs at the slightest touch or even with a breeze, making regular activities difficult.

As with any other infection, rest and fluids can help you feel better. To soothe both itching and pain, apply anti-itch lotions, such as Benadryl and Caladryl. You can also try cool compresses soaked in a mixture of water and white vinegar, or baths containing colloidal oatmeal.  

If your pain is severe and persists even after trying these remedies, talk with your doctor. He or she may prescribe a more potent painkiller or corticosteroids to ease swelling and throbbing.

When Hurting Doesn't Stop

Shingles pain usually decreases within one or two months. But for about one in 10 people, the agony associated with shingles lasts for months or years. This painful condition is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), in which sensory nerve fibers are damaged, sending persistent pain signals to the brain.

The consequences of this pain are real and can include depression, insomnia, anxiety, and unwanted weight loss. PHN can keep you from doing your daily activities and enjoying your life. The older you are when you develop shingles, the greater your risk of PHN.

Though you may feel isolated, don't suffer in silence. Talk about your pain with your family, your friends, and, most importantly, your doctor. There are about a dozen medications that have been shown to be effective against PHN pain. These include steroids, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants. You may benefit from a prescription for strong painkillers called opioids, or your doctor may recommend a cream, spray, or patch containing lidocaine or capsaicin, which you apply directly to your skin in the area that's painful.

In most cases, pain from PHN will eventually subside. In the meantime, make sure you're taking care of yourself. Rest, avoid stressful situations if you can, and eat nutritious foods. Ask your doctor if stretching or other simple exercises could help. And do things you enjoy—whether it's listening to music, watching a comedy, or reading—to help keep your mind off the pain.

Medical Reviewer: Williams, Robert, MD Last Annual Review Date: 2012-09-24 Copyright: Copyright 2012 Healthgrades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

Your Guide to Shingles