Shingles is a viral infection that causes painful and blistering rashes. One of the first signs of shingles is burning pain or sensitive skin on one side of the body in a band (following the path of a nerve). Other sensations can include tingling, itching and intense pain. Several days after, a red blistering rash commonly develops that can leave permanent scars. The rash typically appears on one side of the trunk (usually only affecting a small space), but can also appear around the eyes or on one side of the face. If you notice any of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately. Early diagnosis combined with antiviral therapy can limit the severity of the pain and accompanying symptoms. Shingles typically goes away on its own after a few weeks. However, it’s important to seek treatment early to avoid complications.

Common features of shingles include:

  • Red, blistering rash that affects one side of the body
  • Tingling, burning or painful sensation
  • Itching

In fewer cases, these symptoms have also been experienced:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Fever and chills
  • Muscle soreness

Shingles is a reactivation of the herpes zoster virus (varicella-zoster), the same virus that causes chickenpox. In healthy younger individuals, the virus remains in a dormant state, but as you age and your immune system becomes weaker, the virus can become active again. Post-herpetic neuralgia is a persistent pain in the region of the shingles caused by the virus damaging the sensory nerve that it travelled along.

Because shingles is such a sensitive skin condition, great care needs to be taken when choosing skin-care products. Avoid soaps, especially bar soaps, as they will cause dry skin and may damage the skin barrier. Instead, opt for mild soap-free cleansers, preferably in liquid form. These cleansers will gently remove dirt, excess oil, bacteria and cosmetics without damaging the skin barrier. Also avoid hot water, as this can actually dry out the skin further. Moisturizers can restore and maintain the skin’s natural moisture levels. Look for moisturizers specially designed for sensitive skin that are free of fragrance, dye or other allergens that may irritate the skin. Frequent application of moisturizing creams can help soothe dry and itchy spots. Applying cold compresses directly to the rash or area of irritation can also help alleviate itching.

The varicella vaccine (Varivax), and the varicella-zoster vaccine (Zostavax) can help prevent shingles. Although these vaccines can’t 100% guarantee that you will not get chickenpox or shingles, they can significantly reduce the chances of complications caused by the viruses. Since shingles commonly affects people with weakened immune systems, keeping fit and healthy can reduce the chances of the virus recurring.

To alleviate pain and discomfort caused by the rashes, over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) or naproxen (Aleve) may help. Anti-itch creams or calamine lotion can be used to help relieve itching. Taking an oral antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can also help reduce the symptoms of shingles.

A doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs such as Acyclovir (Zovirax), Valacyclovir (Valtrex) and Famciclovir (Famvir) to treat shingles. These drugs are best started within the first 3 days of the initial appearance of the rash. Shingles may cause severe pain in which prescription-strength painkillers are needed.