Which Medications Treat and Prevent Shingles?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on February 28, 2023
6 min read

The virus that causes chickenpox also causes shingles. It’s called varicella zoster. It can lie quietly in your nerves for decades after causing chickenpox but suddenly wake up and become active.

The main symptom of shingles is a painful rash that comes up on one side of your body or face. See your doctor as soon as you can if you think you might have this condition.

Your doctor may want to put you on medications to control your infection and speed up healing, cut inflammation, and ease your pain. They include:

These medicines may slow down the progress of the shingles rash, especially if you take them within the first 72 hours of having symptoms.

They can also lower your chance of having complications. Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Acyclovir (Sitavig, Zovirax)
  • Famciclovir (Famvir)
  • Valacyclovir (Valtrex)

Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about side effects to watch for if you take one of these drugs.

Shingles causes inflammation and pain. Your doctor can suggest over-the-counter medicines to relieve milder discomfort. They include:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen

These may also help you stave off postherpetic neuralgia, which is a burning pain that some people get after the rash and blisters of shingles go away.

If you have severe pain after the rash clears or an infection during your shingles outbreak, your doctor might prescribe:

Capsaicin cream: Be careful not to get it in your eyes.

A numbing medicine: You might get lidocaine (Lidoderm, Xylocaine) for pain. It can come in a variety of forms, such as creams, lotions, patches, powders, and sprays, among others.

Antibiotics: You might need these medicines if bacteria infect your skin and rash. But if bacteria aren’t involved, then antibiotics won’t help.

Tricyclic antidepressants: These medications might help ease the pain that lingers after your skin has healed, such as amitriptyline, desipramine (Norpramin), and nortriptyline (Pamelor). They may also help you with depression, if you have that in addition to shingles. Your doctor can tell you what the risks and benefits are.

Some studies show that various alternative treatments, from acupuncture to supplements, can offer relief. The research isn’t complete, but some show promise. Check with your doctor before you try any of these: 

TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation). This therapy uses tiny electrical pulses to relieve pain. A TENS unit is about the size of a smartphone and comes with small patches called electrodes. You put them over the painful area and turn the unit on and off as your pain comes and goes. 

Traditional Chinese medicine. These treatments aim to restore balance in your body. They include acupuncture, the ancient practice of inserting very thin needles into your skin at specific points. Also, moxibustion and cupping, two types of heat therapy, are supposed to draw out toxins. These treatments may be done in combination.

Creams and other skin treatments. A mixture of liquid dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and idoxuridine, an antiviral drug, may reduce swelling and the number of blisters you have when you put it on your rash. And chlorophyll, the chemical that gives plants their green color, is also used directly on the rash as a cream or saline solution. 

Supplements. You’ll find a long list of herbs, pills, and oils that claim to relieve shingles. Most have no research to back them up, but there are a couple of exceptions. Papain, a protein found in papayas, is sold in capsules. And manuka and clover honeys can be put directly on your skin. Very early studies on both show they might be helpful. 

There aren’t home remedies for shingles. But there are things you can do to help your skin heal.

Keep the affected area clean, dry, and exposed to air as much as possible.

The itching can be maddening at times, but try not to scratch or burst the blisters.

Soothe the rash. Your top priority is to find relief for the pain and itching that the rash causes. You might try:

1. Oatmeal baths. Dip into a cool tub of water. For extra relief, add colloidal oatmeal, which is made of oats that have been ground to a very fine powder. This soothing bath may help calm your itching.

2. Cold compresses. Run a washcloth under cool water and place it on your blisters for about 20 minutes at a time. Not only can this relieve itching, it also keeps your blisters clean. That can help you avoid a skin infection. If your blisters aren’t oozing anymore, stop using cold compresses. And if you are using any creams or patches on your rash, don’t use compresses at the same time.

3. Loose clothing. You’ll likely find that relaxed fits made from natural fibers, such as cotton or linen, give you more comfort. If you need to cover your blisters, avoid bandages that might stick to your rash.

4. Calamine lotion. Treat your skin with this smooth, cool, and soothing balm. 

Treat your body and mind. You can get worn down mentally when you’re in constant pain. Stress can make it seem even worse. Self-care starts with treating your rash, but don’t stop there. Your mind and emotional state need to be cared for as well. 

Stick with good habits: Your body is working hard to fight the varicella zoster virus that causes shingles. To give it the right support, you can:

  • Eat nutritious food and have regular meals. Ask someone to make a run to the grocery store for fresh fruit and such if you’re not up for it.
  • Try to get a good night’s sleep and rest anytime you need to.
  • Do gentle exercises, such as walking or stretching. Light activity can help take your mind off the pain. Keep it simple though, and check with your doctor if you’re trying something new.

Distract yourself. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to put your focus elsewhere. Here are a few things to try:

  • Call a friend.
  • Listen to music that relaxes you.
  • Read a book.
  • Watch a favorite movie.
  • Work on hobbies you enjoy.

Keep calm. Relaxation can be a big help. With a calmer mind, you can better handle your discomfort. You may want to try:

  • Meditation
  • Tai chi
  • Walking (but keep your blisters covered)
  • Yoga

Experiment with these strategies as you get through your shingles outbreak. Different things can help depending on how severe your symptoms are and how you feel from day to day.

There are two shingles vaccines. Shingrix is the recommended vaccine. Zostavax is no longer avilable in the U.S.

Who should get it: The CDC recommends that you get this vaccine if you’re a healthy adult age 50 or older, whether or not you remember having had chickenpox, because most people have been exposed to the virus. If you have had the Zostavax vaccine, you can also get Shingrix.

How many shots do you need? You would need two shots for Shingrix: One at first, with a follow-up in 2 to 6 months.

What it does: Shingrix reduces your chance of getting shingles by more than 90%. Even if you still get shingles, the vaccine may help it be less painful.

I never had chickenpox. Do I still need the shingles vaccine? Yes, you do. Shingrix is recommended for everyone age 50 or older, whether or not you remember having had chickenpox.

If I’ve had shingles, can I still get the vaccine? Yes. It may help prevent another bout of shingles later on. If you have shingles right now, you should wait until the rash is gone before you get vaccinated.

What are the side effects? The most common side effects with Shingrix include pain and swelling where the needle went in you skin, muscle pain, tiredness, headache, chills, fever, and stomach troubles. With any vaccine, there is a chance of a severe allergic reaction. 

Don’t get the Shingrix vaccine if:

  • You’re allergic to any of the ingredients.
  • You’re pregnant or nursing.
  • You have tested negative for immunity to the chickenpox virus. Ask your doctor about the chickenpox vaccine instead.
  • You have shingles now.