How Is Shingles Treated?

1 answer | Last updated: Feb 23, 2012
A fellow caregiver asked...

How is shingles treated?

Expert Answers

Dr. Leslie Kernisan is a senior medical editor at and a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics. She also provides housecalls and geriatric consultations in San Francisco.

For most people, including older adults, shingles will eventually get better on its own, without any treatment. But starting antiviral medications early on can help reduce the severity of the symptoms. That's why it's wise to see a doctor when you suspect shingles. Early antiviral treatment (which must be started within three days of getting a rash to be effective) also makes it less likely that a person will develop chronic nerve pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia.

For immune-suppressed people, antiviral treatment for shingles is an absolute necessity to prevent a dangerous spread of shingles throughout the body. People at risk include those who have a weak immune system because of:

  • Chemotherapy.
  • Medications related to a transplant operation.
  • A disease that compromises the immune system, such as HIV.

The main medications used for shingles are:

  • Antiviral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), famciclovir (Famvir).
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • Prescription pain relief, which can range from skin creams to certain antidepressants that also have an effect on nerve pain.
  • Steroid medications, which are sometimes given with antivirals.

The shingles vaccine is recommended for all adults over age 60 but should not be used to treat an active case of shingles.