Shingles treatment can be a long process. Learn about shingles, its cause and what to do if you've got shingles.
If you thought you were rid of the chicken pox virus, think again. The varicella-zoster virus that caused chicken pox all those years ago still lies dormant in your nerve roots. The virus can reawaken in the form of shingles for those with compromised immune systems. There are an estimated 500,000 cases of shingles each year in the United States, generally striking people over the age of 60.
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a viral infection of the nerve root. It often causes flu-like symptoms in its early stages, followed by an itchy, tingling or painful rash on one side of the body. In a few days, the rash will turn into clusters of fluid-filled blisters that may ooze and crust over. Most cases of shingles will heal on their own in two to four weeks, but several shingles treatment options are available for those with severe cases.
Antiviral medication, sometimes combined with steroid medications (corticosteroids like prednisone), is commonly prescribed to reduce the pain and duration of shingles. Common antiviral medicines include acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex). Though steroid medicines help reduce inflammation and possibly lower the risk of complications, they have not been proven conclusively to alleviate shingles.
There are also helpful over-the-counter remedies available at local drug stores. Common pain medicines, such as acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen, will help alleviate pain, while aluminum acetate solutions (Burow's or Domeboro solution) will help keep blisters dry. Soothing, anti-itch lotions, such as calamine lotion and topical creams containing capsaicin, can also relieve pain. Just be aware that capsaicin, an active component of chili peppers, is known to irritate or burn some people's skin, so apply these creams with caution. If itching is especially unbearable, try a common oral antihistamine medicine such as diphenhydramine (e.g., Benadryl).
At home, be sure to keep skin as clean as possible. Avoid scratching the rash or blisters and avoid bandaging them. Don't be afraid to wash the affected area with soap and water; try taking a cool bath sprinkled with baking soda or uncooked oatmeal to relieve itching. Applying cool, wet compresses also can provide relief. Shingles often leave sufferers feeling weak and tired, so plan on getting plenty of rest and avoiding strenuous activities during recovery.
If pain persists or complications arise, your doctor may prescribe pain medicines, antidepressants and topical anesthetic creams. The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia, a persistent pain that can resist treatment and last for months or even years. Up to 20 percent of those who get shingles develop postherpetic neuralgia, according to Mayo Clinic, and 40 to 50 percent of those who develop postherpetic neuralgia do not respond to treatment.
The basic rule of thumb is that the sooner you start treatment, the more effective it is. The first step to treating shingles is to call a doctor. Beginning treatment within the first two days of noticing the rash will lower the risk of serious complications.
If you are over the age of 60, have had chicken pox and do not have a weakened immune system, you may be a candidate for Zostavax, an adult shingles vaccine. The vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in May 2006, and tests have shown the vaccine to cause a significant drop in the incidence of shingles in older adults, reducing shingles symptoms by 60 percent and decreasing the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia by at least that much.
The good news is that shingles is not contagious. The bad news is that you could spread chicken pox to people who haven't yet been exposed to it. So be extra vigilant about avoiding people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and especially babies.