Skin Care for Shingles
By Krisha McCoy, MS
Medically reviewed By Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
If you had chickenpox as a kid, you may be at risk for developing shingles later in life. Shingles is caused by the same varicella virus that causes chickenpox, but the resulting blistering skin rash can be more severe — even, occasionally, debilitating. "The rash that you get with shingles can be really painful," says Jennifer Stein, MD, PhD, associate director of the pigmented lesion service and assistant professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. "If you think you have shingles, visit your doctor as soon as possible.”
Your doctor can prescribe antiviral medications that can shorten the duration of your illness, make it less severe, and reduce your chance of shingles-related complications such as postherpetic neuralgia, shingles-related pain that persists after your rash has healed.
Proper skin care is also essential. While it won’t make your shingles go away faster, it can help soothe your skin while your shingles heal.
At-Home Shingles Skin Care
After you have seen your doctor for treatment, try the following to care for your skin while you have the shingles rash:
- Use skin-soothing products. "You can put on any type of topical lotion or cream that you find soothing," says Stein. Some people find relief by applying topical lotions or creams, like petroleum jelly, calamine lotion, and hydrocortisone creams. Avoid putting anything on your skin that you find irritating.
- Bathe and shower as usual. "You can take a bath or a shower as you normally would," says Stein. A cool shower or bath can be soothing to your rash, she says, and some doctors even recommend daily cleansing to reduce the risk of bacterial infection. A colloidal oatmeal bath may offer extra relief.
- Try cool compresses. If you’re really uncomfortable, putting a cool compress on your rash may help. "Take a clean washcloth or clean paper towels, soak them in cool water, and apply that to the [affected] area," says Stein.
- Capsaicin or menthol creams. Your doctor may recommend one of these creams to ease your shingles-related pain, because they distract the nerves in your skin by giving it a different sensation, says Stein. Capsaicin and menthol creams can help as long as you don't find them irritating to your skin..
- Lidocaine patches. "Lidocaine patches can numb the skin, especially for people who are having a lot of pain," says Stein. These adhesive patches contain a topical anesthetic and should be applied directly to any painful areas.
- Avoid sunlight. "Unfortunately, some people can get scarring” after shingles goes away," says Stein. "You want to avoid sunlight because the sunlight can change the color of the skin as it is healing." But avoiding sunlight is no guarantee that you will not have shingles scars, which appear as white marks on your skin in the area where the shingles rash used to be.
- Limit scratching. "If you scratch your shingles rash a lot and it opens up, it is possible that it can get infected by bacteria on your skin," says Stein. Limit scratching as much as possible to reduce your chances of infection.
While you have shingles, relax and soothe your skin as much as possible, and keep in mind that with time, your skin will eventually clear up and your symptoms will go away. But if your rash seems to be getting worse and is still there after a couple of weeks of treatment, see your doctor for additional advice and treatment.