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How do I Relieve Shingles Pain?

By Rachel Burkot
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Shingles pain can often be relieved by a combination of treatments, opioid painkillers, over-the-counter medicines, antibiotics and antidepressants. It's caused by a viral infection of the nerve roots, which also causes a rash on one side of the body. The rash can appear in the form of a strip, band or region. Shingles begins with the chicken pox virus, herpes zoster, and even after a patient recovers chicken pox, this virus lies dormant in his or her system.

Herpes zoster can lie dormant forever, but it sometimes reappears as shingles. The exact cause is undetermined, but injury, stress or certain medications can lead to an outbreak. The infection is not contagious, but a patient can give chicken pox to someone who has not had it. Shingles is most common in older people and in people with weak immune systems.

The rash that shingles victims experience is painful, ugly and leaves scars. Some breakouts are worse than others, and foods high in sugar, salt and artificial sweeteners can trigger breakouts, as well as stress and anxiety. Shingles pain often does not go away after the rash does. This is a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), and it is difficult to treat.

To treat the painful rash associated with shingles, the recommended medications include over-the-counter drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen, antibiotics applied to the skin and antivirals. To treat PHN pain, stronger medication is usually required, such as opioids, antidepressants, topical medicine and anticonvulsants. Common opioids include morphine, codeine and oxycodone, while the most widely used antidepressant is amitriptyline.

Studies have compared antidepressants with opioids as shingles pain relievers. According to a study at John Hopkins Medical School, 30% of patients reported pain relief from opioids, while 32% reported relief from antidepressants. When asked, however, 54% of patients said that they preferred opioids for shingles treatment, compared with 30% who preferred the antidepressant. The side effects of opioids include nausea, constipation and dizziness.

For non-medicated relief from the nerve pain caused by shingles, patients can place an ice pack on the sores, which will momentarily stop the burning and itching. Scrubbing the sores hard with bar soap hurts at the time but may relieve the long-term pain and dry the blisters, allowing them to burst and the healing process to begin quickly. The most effective treatment is to keep the sores dry because, when the clusters of blisters dry up, they eventually go away.

For painless relief, patients may try putting nail polish remover on the blisters to cool and dry them. This will take longer, but they will often disappear with time. Calamine lotion can also be applied.

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Discussion Comments

By anon330601 — On Apr 17, 2013

I'm 14 and I actually have shingles, and it feels like my back has caught on fire and also under my breast. I can't sleep and I have a state test tomorrow and I don't know how I will get through it if I can't even sleep without ice on my back. It hurts so much that it feels terrible.

By anon316656 — On Jan 29, 2013

My elderly dad had shingles and is still having postherpetic itching. It's hell. He's on gabapentin but he can only take 300 mg a day. I picked up a neutrogena microdermabrasion kit for him and he uses the device (without the buff pad attachment and buff pads) on his face where it itches and says it helps quite a bit. He also likes a hot washcloth on his face.

What we are noticing now (it's been about three months since he came down with shingles) is that the lingering itching seems to be related to his stress levels and he can lower the amount of itching by relaxing. We might bring him toast and jam and then he will eat and feel less itchy, or we'll put hot washcloths on his face for a while and then he says his itching is less or gone. We'll use Aveeno oatmeal soap on his face, rinse, and apply Vaseline and he'll say the itching is okay now, whereas if we do nothing, he'll just continue to feel lousy and often want another pill when he's just had one an hour ago.

By StarJo — On Apr 23, 2012

I had chicken pox when I was nine years old, and I am terrified of getting shingles one day. I watched my aunt suffer from it at the age of 54, and I'm scared I'll get it when I'm around that age.

She was in pain for six weeks. That is how long it took the shingles to disappear.

She has always been into herbal treatments, so she refused to see a doctor. Instead, she bought some licorice root ointment.

She put it right on top of her sores. It kept the virus from spreading, so she probably prevented some suffering with this ointment.

By cloudel — On Apr 22, 2012

I would be afraid to use nail polish remover on my shingles blisters. I know how much it hurts when I accidentally get the stuff on a cut on my finger, and I would imagine it would really burn and sting on shingles.

I have found calamine lotion to be a helpful treatment, though. That stuff can dehydrate your skin quickly, and I had used it on bug bites for years before I needed to use it as a shingles pain treatment. It really sucks the moisture out of blisters quickly.

I still had to take a lot of prescription strength ibuprofen, though. Calamine lotion helps, but it is mostly to treat the rash instead of the intense pain.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 22, 2012

@kylee07drg – My mother used capsaicin cream on her shingles, but she had to wait for the rash to heal first. You are not supposed to apply capsaicin to broken skin, but after the rash disappears, you can put it on the area if it still hurts.

I've also heard of people using lidocaine cream. This stuff will numb the area, so that might be the best route to go.

My mother said that capsaicin actually intensifies the pain the first time you use it, but her doctor had already told her this would happen. The second time she applied it and every time thereafter, the pain started to lessen.

By kylee07drg — On Apr 21, 2012

My good friend got shingles after having an operation to remove his kidney stones. I think his body was so stressed out from the whole experience that it gave shingles the perfect chance to surface.

He broke out under his arms, and the pain was great. He said that it also itched terribly.

To treat his shingles pain, his doctor gave him oxycodone. He didn't like the way it made him feel out of his head, but it was better than living with the pain.

Is there a topical painkiller available to treat shingles pain, or are the creams just to help clear up the rash? It seems like it would be better to treat the pain at the site, rather than take pain medicine that affects your entire body and mind.

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