"If you look at the clinical trials with any of these drugs in people over 50," says Dworkin, "they cut the rate of pain at six months in half. That's a very significant improvement." They are also very safe and have few side effects, he says.
But who needs the drugs? Dworkin says there's not a clear consensus yet.
There are some obvious cases. "I think everyone would agree that someone who is over 50 and has severe symptoms should get preventative treatment," he tells WebMD.
But for younger people or those with fewer risk factors, the course is less clear.
"Some people think that everyone who gets shingles should get preventative treatment with antiviral medicines, because the medicines are so safe and have such few side effects," he says.
Others argue that preventative treatment should only be given to those at greater risk. The main reason for this, Dworkin says, is cost.
"A full course of treatment could cost anywhere between $100 and $160," he says. "That can add up, and insurance companies might not want to pay if the risks are very, very low."
Have Shingles? Get Treatment, Take Action
If you have shingles, it's important to talk to your doctor about your risk for developing PHN. Ask whether preventative treatment with antiviral drugs makes sense. If your doctor says it's not necessary, ask why.
The full implications of the psychological risk factors for PHN aren't clear yet, says Dworkin. But he suggests that people with shingles should try to stay active and connected.
"If psychological distress is a risk factor for PHN," he says, "then we think that people who have shingles might benefit from getting out and not being isolated and homebound."
You might make an effort to stay connected to family and friends and not to dwell on your symptoms. Also, keep in mind that even if you do develop PHN, there are treatments that can help.
"We have about a half dozen types of drugs that are used as first-line treatments for PHN," says Dworkin. They include lidocaine patch (Lidoderm), pregabalin (Lyrica), gabapentin (Neurontin, Gralise, Horizant), capsaicin (Qutenza, Zostrix cream), carbamazepine (Tegretol), tricyclic antidepressants, and painkillers.