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Some doctors only treat symptoms of shingles, such as pain, when the disease is diagnosed later than 72 hours after the rash develops. Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, for example), ibuprofen (Advil, for example), naproxen (Aleve), or tricyclic antidepressants are examples of some pain medications that may be used. Topical creams (for example, calamine lotion) may help reduce itching.
- Antiviral medications, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir), can decrease the duration of skin rash and pain, including the pain of PHN. These medications must be started early (up to about 24-72 hours after rash development) in the disease course to have any benefit. The doctor will decide which medications you may need. In special cases (for example, those with suppressed immune function), the antiviral medication may need to be given intravenously in the hospital. Only acyclovir is approved for use in children who get shingles.
- Prescription pain medication is often necessary as the pain level is very high in many people. The pain is often so intense that people cannot have any clothing touch the skin area with shingles. Drugs such as oxycodone (Oxycontin, Roxicodone), morphine, amitriptyline (Elavil, Endep), or gabapentin (Neurontin), in addition to topical creams, are often required to help manage the pain. Lidocaine and/or capsaicin (Qutenza, Capzasin) are also occasionally used on the affected area; both are used after the blisters resolve for control of pain in postherpetic neuralgia.
- Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) may require additional medications such as opioids (for example, oxycodone, morphine) to control pain. PHN is the pain that remains in some people even after the rash goes away. Some patients do not respond to common pain-management therapies and may need to be referred to a pain-management specialist. Drugs usually prescribed for seizures and other nerve-related problems, gabapentin and pregabalin, have been effective in reducing pain in some patients with shingles, including those with PHN.
- An indication for a drug used to previously treat restless leg syndrome was approved by the FDA in 2012 to treat nerve-related pain seen in PHN. The drug is gabapentin enacarbil (Horizant), an antiepileptic, and was approved for PHN pain treatment after clinical trials showed the drug was safe and effective. PHN pain has been difficult to treat; this drug may help a significant number of shingles patients that develop PHN.
- Sometimes topical corticosteroids are used to decrease inflammation and pain, but they should be used only under the supervision of a health-care professional since, in some patients, corticosteroids may make the infection worse. Topical medications may be used to soothe the area or prevent infection (see above, home treatments).
For more information, read our full medical article on shingles.
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Moon, James E. "Herpes Zoster." Medscape.com. May 11, 2011. <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/218683-overview>.
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Shingles (Herpes Zoster)." May 1, 2014. <http://www.cdc.gov/shingles/>.