Herpes Zoster (Shingles)

Shingles is a painful infection of a spinal nerve. It may occur on any body surface area and it characteristically follows the skin pattern of the region where the nerve serves. Usually there will be red bumps or blisters in "crops" along this nerve's skin path. Pain or increased skin sensitivity often precedes the rash by a few days.

The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. No one knows for sure what triggers the attack, but stress may be a factor. Fortunately, there are medications which, if taken early in the course of the illness, will often make it less severe or painful than it otherwise would be.

Complications of shingles include secondary infection from scratching, skin marks or scarring (which is common). Most troublesome for a small number of patients is a painful condition ("neuralgia") that remains long after the skin sores have healed up.

Normally the illness lasts about a month. Unlike chickenpox, the condition may occur again, but this is quite rare (if you are otherwise healthy an have a normal immune system).

Home Care for Shingles

  • Since shingles is a viral infection, the mainstay of treatment is proper nutrition, rest and time. Often some form of pain medication is recommended to help with sleep. Usually acetaminophen or ibuprofen will help. Sometimes stronger medications are needed.

  • If you are diagnosed within a couple of days of onset of the illness, certain anti-viral medications may be prescribed. There is no cure for shingles, but sometimes these specific medicines will help ease the symptoms and possibly reduce the chance of persistent neuralgia. Take any medication as directed and finish all of it.

  • Try not to scratch or irritate the skin eruptions. It is possible to develop a secondary infection of the skin if the area is not properly protected and kept clean. Moist heat, calamine lotion or aloe may be helpful, but cortisone creams are ineffective and should be discouraged.

  • The condition may last for a month or more, but if you do not feel as though you are improving in a few weeks you need to be reevaluated by your primary care provider. This is especially important if you suffer from the extended pain condition that sometimes results.


Call or See Your Physician If Any of the Following Occur:

  • Eruptions on the nose or near an eye have the potential for harm to the eye and should be monitored closely. Be sure to follow any recommendations for an eye examination by your physician or an eye specialist.

  • Fever or increased or spreading redness, which may mean a more serious infection

  • Your illness does not subside, or if more body areas become involved.

  • If you have more than one area involved, or if this is your second or third episode, you should recheck with your physician to consider having your immune system evaluated.

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