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What is shingles and how is it treated?

Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. After the chickenpox clears, the virus stays in the body. If the virus reactivates, or wakes up, usually when you’re much older, the result is shingles — a painful, blistering rash.

Shingles is most common in older adults. A vaccine that can help prevent shingles is available to people ages 50 and older. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends the shingles vaccine for people ages 60 and older.


If you get shingles, an anti-viral medicine can make symptoms milder and shorter. The medicine may even prevent long-lasting nerve pain(post-herpetic neuralgia). Anti-viral medicine is most effective when started within 3 days of seeing the rash.


Symptoms of shingles

Shingles tends to cause more pain and less itching than chickenpox. An area of skin may burn, itch, tingle, or feel very sensitive. This usually occurs in a small area on one side of the body. These symptoms can come and go or be constant. Most people experience this for 1 to 3 days though it may last longer.

  • Rash. A rash then appears in the same area.

  • Blisters. The rash soon turns into groups of clear blisters. The blisters turn yellow or bloody before they crust over and heal. The blisters tend to last 2 to 3 weeks.

  • Pain. It is uncommon to have blisters without pain. The pain may require medication. Once the blisters heal, the pain tends to lessen. The pain can last for months after the blisters clear.

  • Flu-like symptoms. If you have shingles, you may get a fever or headache with the rash.

Diagnosing shingles

To diagnose shingles, we begin with a visual inspection of the skin. Often that’s all it takes for us to make a diagnosis. However, if there is any doubt, we may take a sample of a blister to send to a pathologist for further evaluation.


Treatment for shingles

Without treatment, the rash clears in a few weeks. Because of the pain associated with shingles, though, we strongly recommend treatment. Without it, your pain, numbness, itching, and tingling may last for months, and in very rare occasions, years.


Treatments include:

  • Pain relievers to help ease the pain.

  • Anti-viral medicine. This medicine may be prescribed when a doctor diagnoses shingles within 72 hours of the rash first appearing. The earlier an anti-viral treatment is started, the better it works. Anti-viral medicines include acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir. These can lessen the pain and the amount of time the pain lasts.

  • Nerve blocks. Injection containing a numbing agent may provide temporary relief.

Certain anti-depressants, pain relievers, anesthetic creams and patches, and anti-seizure medicines can also help. We’ll discuss all possible treatments together during your visit to the Dermatological Center for Skin Health.

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