Treating Shingles With Over-the-Counter Medications
What is shingles?
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a viral infection that presents as a blister-filled rash typically appearing on one side of the body (although it may “wrap” around the torso). The rash associated with shingles is usually extremely painful. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus which is also responsible for chickenpox. After an individual has chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus lies dormant in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain. The virus can reactivate at any time, even decades later. If it reactivates, it travels along nerve fibers to the skin. This reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus is referred to as shingles.
Although no cure exists for shingles, a prompt medical diagnosis is imperative in order to receive proper treatment. Medications are available that accelerate the healing process, ease pain and reduce inflammation. Early treatment is crucial to avoid complications associated with shingles, so a health care provider should be consulted as soon as possible if shingles is suspected.
The shingles virus causes inflammation and pain in nerve endings. Certain over-the-counter medications can help ease the pain or reduce the inflammation experienced with shingles:
- Acetaminophen is used to treat mild to moderate pain and should be taken only as directed. Various brand-name medications contain acetaminophen. Typically, it is taken orally, every four to six hours or as directed by a physician. Acetaminophen should be taken at the first sign of pain to obtain optimal relief. This medication should not be used to treat pain for more than ten days unless directed by a physician. Extended-release forms of acetaminophen should not be chewed, crushed or split unless a physician or pharmacist is consulted.
- Ibuprofen can relieve pain and reduce inflammation. It blocks natural substances in the body that cause inflammation and swelling. Ibuprofen should be taken as directed and for the shortest time possible to avoid gastrointestinal complications (stomach bleeding). This medication is taken orally, typically every four to six hours, with a full glass of water. It can be taken with food if an upset stomach occurs. It may take up to two weeks to receive the full benefit of ibuprofen. If pain worsens or does not improve, a health care professional should be consulted.
- Naproxen is used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. This medication should be taken only as directed, normally two to three times daily. It should be taken with food and a full glass of water or milk to avoid an upset stomach. Naproxen should be taken in the lowest dosage for the shortest time possible to avoid gastrointestinal complications (stomach bleeding).
- Lidocaine is a pain-relieving medication that is applied topically via a numbing cream, powder, spray or skin patch. Lidocaine products are available by prescription or over-the-counter. It contains a numbing agent that can ease the pain associated with the shingles virus.