Anyone who had chickenpox as a kid remembers the red, painfully itchy blister-like rash, and perhaps the fever and fatigue that came along with it. But even though it's true you're now inoculated against chickenpox for life, there's one pox-related complication you may not have considered: Shingles. Shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus (varicella-zoster virus, or VZV), and causes a painful, itchy rash in one place on the body. Shingles is most common in adults over 50 years of age; in fact, about half of people over age 80 may experience it.
Shingles often begins as pain and itching in the skin before a red rash appears one to two days later, with small, water-filled blisters. These blisters soon rupture and scar over, healing and fading over the course of a few weeks. This process can be extremely uncomfortable and painful, making even the littlest actions difficult. There is a vaccine available to prevent shingles, and it is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for healthy adults over age 50. For those who are over age 65 and eligible for Medicare, your Medicare Advantage plan or Medicare Part D plan may cover this vaccine. Luckily, there are also home remedies for shingles that can make you feel better while you heal. Watch this video to learn how to soothe pain and discomfort at home.
But first, if you think you may have shingles, head to your doctor immediately, especially if it’s on your face or near your eyes (this can cause lasting damage to your eyes). Your doctor may prescribe you oral anti-viral medication, which you’ll take for seven to 10 days, says Lindsay C. Strowd, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Health. Your doc might also prescribe oral or topical meds to help with the pain. While shingles isn’t super contagious to your average, healthy person, it can pose a risk for pregnant woman, elderly people, and those with compromised immune systems, so avoid contact with these people until your rash has scabbed over (it’s usually spread through the blister fluid) and keep it covered with a bandage, says Dr. Strowd.
Here’s how to minimize discomfort and pain with stuff you probably already have at home:
“The skin can feel extremely sensitive to even the lightest touch. Keeping it cool with the use of cool compresses may help,” says Dr. Strowd. If your rash feels too sensitive for a direct cool compress, try applying a moist cotton towel to the area for 5 to 10 minutes several times a day (think refrigerator temperature, not freezer temperature), says Dr. Strowd. Also, avoid contact with any open blisters, says Lauren Eckert Ploch, MD, an Augusta, Georgia-based dermatologist.
“Covering the rash with a thin layer of Vaseline and then a large cotton bandage will protect the skin from clothing or other irritations,” says Dr. Strowd. This will also help keep you from touching the area and spreading the infection, says Dr. Ploch. Apply a thin layer of Vaseline after washing once daily and cover with a non-stick bandage. You can also use other petroleum or dimethicone products, Dr. Ploch says, but avoid using lotions or other topical OTC medications that contain fragrance as this could be irritating to the skin. Aim for plain, non-irritating products for sensitive skin.
Stick to loose, cotton clothes
To fight itch, “wear loose fitting clothes with soft natural fibers such as cotton or linen,” says Dr. Strowd. “These will be more comfortable than tight synthetic fabrics or wool clothing garments.”
Oatmeal or baking soda baths
These can provide temporary relief for itching and can be soothing, say Dr. Strowd. Look for colloidal (or ground) oatmeal to add to cool bath water, or add baking soda. Both can help calm itching and are gentle on skin.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends this lotion for shingles relief. It’s gentle and can help keep itching to a minimum. Apply once your blisters have scabbed over, says Dr. Ploch.