If you’ve had chickenpox but never had shingles, consider yourself lucky. I had it when I was in my 20s, and the pain in my belly was so bad that the doctors almost mistook it for appendicitis — until the itchy rash appeared. After a course of antiviral medicine, the rash faded pretty quickly, but the stabbing, burning pain lingered for weeks.
An estimated 1 million cases of shingles, or herpes zoster, occur annually in the U.S. It’s most common in adults over the age of 50, but as my case shows, it can show up in younger people too. Anyone who’s had chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles, which occurs when the virus that has been dormant in the nerve cells reactivates and travels from the nerves out to the skin.
Shingles often starts with flu-like symptoms like fever, headache and fatigue. This is followed by pain, burning, numbness or tingling in one section of the body — frequently on the left or right side of your torso. The rash usually appears in a stripe of blisters a couple of days after the pain starts. It looks a lot like chickenpox in that the blisters break open and crust over.
Occasionally, the shingles rash occurs around one eye or on the side of the neck or face. If you develop shingles around your eye, you need to treat the infection immediately because it can cause permanent eye damage.
To vaccinate or not?
The first vaccine against shingles, Zostavax, has been available since 2006. But it was recently pulled from the U.S. market because it is no longer the primary vaccine for the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) now recommends Shingrix as the preferred vaccine for shingles.
If you’ve already had shingles and have not yet been vaccinated, you may think you don’t need to be. But the FDA still recommends that all healthy adults aged 50 and older get two doses of Shingrix, including those who have had shingles before. This is because it’s possible to get shingles more than once, since the virus that causes it remains in the body after infection.
There’s no cure for shingles, but there are several antiviral medicines available to treat the illness and shorten its length and severity: acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir. If you’re suffering from shingles, you should see your doctor and get a prescription for one of these medicines so you can start taking it as soon as possible after the rash appears for it to be most effective.
Relieving the pain caused by shingles can be difficult, though over-the-counter or prescription pain medicines may help. For itching, calamine lotion is a tried and true remedy for rashes of all kinds. Gently spread the lotion over your blisters and let it dry completely before covering it with clothing or a loose bandage.
If you prefer a more holistic approach, there are several natural remedies you can try to ease the pain and itching of shingles…
Cooling the burning pain of shingles
Taking a colloidal oatmeal bath can provide some relief. This finely ground oatmeal binds to the skin and forms a protective barrier, helping to hold in moisture and relieve inflammation.
Since the shingles rash does not respond well to temperature extremes, make sure the bathwater is lukewarm rather than hot. Then add the recommended amount of colloidal oatmeal (or one cup of homemade finely ground oatmeal powder) and soak for 10 to 15 minutes. When you get out of the bath, gently pat yourself dry, but try to leave your skin damp so as not to disturb the protective layer created.
You can also try cool compresses, which keeps the blisters clean as well as relieving itching and pain. This will help prevent a skin infection. Run cool (not cold) water over a washcloth, preferably one made of natural fibers, and place it on your shingles blisters in 20-minute intervals. Don’t do this if your blisters have already dried out. And if you’re using creams, lotions or pain patches on your rash, don’t use a wet compress at the same time.
Witch hazel is another good topical treatment and is believed to be more effective than chamomile for reducing inflammation and itchiness. Apply witch hazel water or cream to the affected area for relief from irritation.
Essential oils may be helpful as well. Medical News Today suggests the following oils have properties that are healing and help with the irritation:
- Chamomile oil, which has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties and can improve ulcers and pressure sores by aiding skin-cell regeneration.
- Eucalyptus oil, which has anti-inflammatory properties and can increase the speed at which cancer patients’ sores heal.
- Tea tree oil, which has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties and can promote wound healing.
When applied to the skin, essential oils should be diluted with carrier oils and a patch test performed to test for an allergic reaction.
Researchers have discovered that an extract of the flower Gentiana scabra accelerated pain relief for shingles sufferers and reduced the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia, a painful complication of shingles affecting the nerve fibers and skin.
Make sure you wear loose clothing, as anything that rubs against the shingles rash can set off the pain and itching. Opt for natural fibers like cotton or linen whenever possible. And if you need to cover your rash, avoid using any bandages that might stick to the blisters.
Shingles — Mayo Clinic
Zostavax (Herpes Zoster Vaccine) Questions and Answers — Food and Drug Administration
Shingles Vaccination — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Treating Shingles — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Oatmeal Baths for Itchy Skin — WebMD
What are some home remedies for shingles? — Medical News Today