Shingles Pain: Everything you need to Know


Shingles is like a worse, more painful version of the chickenpox. It’s a temporary condition, although some of its side effects can be long lasting. In this post, we’re going to cover everything from symptoms, to causes, to pain management to long-term expectations.

Many people are affected by shingles. In fact, it “affects 20 to 30 percent of Americans at some point in their lives,” said Dr. Anne Louise Oaklander, director of the Center for Shingles and PHN at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

“What I first thought was sunburn turned out to be the beginning of a shingles outbreak,” said Gary C., who recently suffered from a case of shingles. “I had a pounding headache, then I started feeling a shooting pain going up the side of my face.”

We’re sorry if you or a loved one is experiencing this viral condition. Please use this shingles resource as your guide to navigating a shingles outbreak.

Shingles Symptoms

Shingles can show up overnight. You might notice that your skin has turned red, with a row of raised dots in the red area, on one side of your body or face. You will also experience a stabbing or shooting pain. You may feel tingling sensations, fever, chills or a headache and an upset stomach.

Once the rash has developed, it will turn into painful red blisters. The blisters will typically begin to dry out and crust over within 7 to 10 days. Typically, you are contagious until the blisters have crusted over.

Shingles Causes

Shingles comes from the chickenpox virus, which stems from the varicella zoster virus. When your body first comes into contact with the virus, it can cause a chickenpox outbreak. After chickenpox has run its course, the virus hides in nerve tissues near your spinal cord and brain. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why, but sometimes the virus awakens, and moves along the nerve fibers of your skin. This is when a shingles outbreak happens.

While doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes the shingles virus to become active again, there are several contributing factors that cause the perfect storm for an outbreak. Some of the main causes include:

  • Weakened immune system
  • Having cancer, HIV or another disease that weakens your body’s immune system
  • Being age 50 or older
  • Being under a lot of stress
  • Recent physical trauma
  • Long-term steroid use, or any other drug that can weaken your immune system

How to Feel Better

If you are concerned that you might have shingles, the first step is a visit to your doctor. He or she will be able to write a prescription that will stop the virus in its tracks.

Although the medication will stop the virus from progressing, the existing breakout will take some time to heal. Here are a few things you can do at home to start alleviating some of the pain:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Eat well-balanced meals to power your body with nutrients
  • Apply a cool wash cloth or an ice pack wrapped in a towel to the blisters to help relieve the pain
  • Avoid stress
  • Try taking an oatmeal bath or using calamine lotion
  • Distract yourself with a good book, movie, art project, or by talking to a loved one

How to Stop from Spreading

An important piece in shingles management is stopping the outbreak from spreading. To stop this from happening, take these steps:

  • Keep the rash covered
  • Avoid touching the affected area
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid contact with people who haven’t had chickenpox or who have a weakened immune system

How to Stop from Happening

One common question that people have is: How can I prevent this from happening?

Firstly, adults who have not had a chickenpox outbreak should get the chickenpox vaccine, also known as a varicella immunization. While the vaccination isn’t foolproof, it does prevent an outbreak in 9 out of 10 people.

It is also recommended that adults age 60 and older get a shingles vaccine, also known as the varicella-zoster immunization. This can help improve your chances against getting a severe shingles outbreak.

Is it permanent?  

“Even after the outbreak, my entire face and one side of my face still feel tingly,” said Gary C. In fact, many people who have had a shingles outbreak feel long-term effects.

The most common long-term problem caused by shingles is called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. Your systems usually subside when the rash is gone; however, some people still feel pain, itching, burning or tingling. This is PHN.

The length of PHN varies for different people. Sometimes it can last weeks, months, years, and, in some cases, it’s permanent. If you’re experiencing PHN, speak with your doctor, who might be able to prescribe a medication to alleviate the symptoms.


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