Remember that childhood bout of chickenpox that caused itching, burning, and a painful rash all over your body? If you’re experiencing similar symptoms as an adult, you may be dealing with shingles.
Herpes zoster, also known as shingles, is a disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you recover from chickenpox as a child or teen, the virus lies dormant in your nerve cells.
For many people, it never makes a repeat appearance. But for about 1 in 3 adults in the United States, the virus reactivates and causes shingles, according to the
While most cases are in people over 50, shingles can occur before age 40, but the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD) says this is rare.
Shingles rashes typically last between 2 and 4 weeks. And while it’s not life threatening, the virus can trigger a painful rash that causes a lot of discomfort. The good news, though, is that you can do things to take care of your skin and reduce pain while the rash heals.
Make an appointment to see your primary care physician and a dermatologist at the first sign of shingles, ideally within 2 to 3 days of getting the rash. They can assess the severity and prescribe an antiviral, if necessary.
You’ll likely notice these signs a few days before a rash appears:
According to the AAD, starting an antiviral within 72 hours of the first symptoms can:
- reduce symptoms
- decrease the amount of time you have shingles
- lower the risk of complications
One of the best things you can do after making an appointment to see your doctor is to start caring for the rash at home until it clears.
In general, the blister-like rash will scab about 7 to 10 days after it appears. It typically takes between 2 and 4 weeks to go away entirely, according to the AAD.
During this healing period, follow these steps each day:
- Gently wash the affected area with a fragrance-free cleanser.
- Let it dry.
- Apply petroleum jelly (optional).
- Apply a sterile bandage or nonstick gauze.
- Wash your hands thoroughly.
To help ease pain and itching, do the following as needed:
- Apply a cool compress for a few minutes.
- Soak in a soothing bath.
- Use calamine lotion, but only after the blisters have scabbed over.
It might be tempting to scratch or pick at the blisters, especially if they’re causing you discomfort. Know that they’ll eventually crust over and fall off if you leave them alone.
Scratching at blisters or scabs can lead to infection and scarring. Cleaning and covering them regularly with a new sterile bandage can help reduce the likelihood that you’ll pick at the rash.
Keeping the rash clean is one part of the process. The other is to make sure you bandage it properly, especially if the rash is still weeping (oozing).
When dealing with a painful shingles rash, your best bet is to use bandages that are:
When you’re switching the dressing, allow the skin to dry before covering it with a new bandage.
In addition to keeping the rash protected, bandaging also prevents you from passing the varicella-zoster virus to another person. Be sure to keep bandages on any areas of the rash that haven’t scabbed over yet.
While shingles isn’t contagious, the virus that causes it can be passed to anyone who hasn’t had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine. If they come into skin-to-skin contact with the fluid that oozes from a shingles blister, they could end up with chickenpox, according to
Shingles can be very painful. If you need help managing pain, your doctor might prescribe a topical pain-relieving cream or patch. These contain lidocaine (Lidoderm, Xylocaine) or other nerve block medication for the skin.
A medicated anti-itch cream that includes an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), might also help you find some relief.
After the rash has scabbed over, you can try using creams or lotions to soothe any remaining symptoms. Look for products that contain:
- aloe vera
- colloidal oatmeal
Your doctor may also recommend an oral over-the-counter pain reliever such as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Always follow the dosage instructions on the label or take according to your doctor’s instructions.
You don’t need expensive skin care products to relieve itchiness and pain. When a rash is active, reach for a few household products instead. For example, a paste made with baking soda and cornstarch applied directly on the rash can provide some much-needed relief.
Plus, this DIY treatment helps dry the sores out, so they may heal faster.
Use equal parts of cornstarch and baking soda mixed with water. Add just enough water to make a thick paste when mixing the ingredients. You don’t want it to be runny. Let the paste sit on the rash for several minutes until it’s dry, then rinse it off gently with water.
Using the right water temperature while bathing or showering can make a big difference in how your skin feels and heals. Ideally, you should bathe with cool or lukewarm water and avoid very hot water.
You can also apply a cool, wet compress to the rash and blisters. The AAD recommends you soak a clean washcloth in cold water and place the cloth on top of the affected area several times a day. Leave it on for 5 to 10 minutes.
You should avoid rubbing washcloths, sponges, or exfoliants on the area.
You can also add colloidal oatmeal or cornstarch to your baths to provide some much-needed itch relief. Just be sure to dry your skin gently after getting out of the bath. Then, follow up with a layer of calamine lotion to soothe your skin, or keep it dry and cover with a bandage if it’s still weeping.
Wearing loose-fitting, natural fiber clothing like cotton is critical while a shingles rash is healing. Clothing that’s too tight can rub up against the rash and irritate it if it’s not bandaged.
Since shingles rashes generally appear on your torso, you may only need to choose loose-fitting shirts, sweatshirts, or tops. Even while bandaged, wearing looser shirts can reduce irritation on the skin.
If you need to wear a mask and you have a shingles rash on your face or neck, consider bandaging the area under the mask until the blisters are fully healed.
If the shingles rash is affecting the skin around your eyes or the tip of your nose, you should immediately make an appointment to see an ophthalmologist. If you cannot see one, see a dermatologist or go to the emergency department for immediate treatment.
Caring for your skin is a critical step when dealing with shingles. Once you’ve talked with your doctor or another healthcare professional, establish a daily routine to clean, soothe, and bandage any blisters or rashes.
If you keep a rash uncovered, be sure to wear loose clothing and avoid close contact with anyone who hasn’t had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine.
And most importantly, be kind to yourself during the healing process. Shingles rashes are painful and take a few weeks to go away. If you have any questions about treatments or your symptoms seem to be worsening, talk with a healthcare professional.
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