The Shingles Care Plan: Treating the Virus and Its Symptoms

By Dennis Thompson Jr.

Medically reviewed By Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

A shingles care plan involves treating the causes as well as the rash, itching, pain, and other symptoms.


Shingles causes a blistering rash that runs along one half of the body in a belt-like fashion. The rash is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus, varicella zoster, which can lie dormant for years in the nerve tissue of a person who has had chickenpox. Once the virus reawakens, it spreads up the nerve fibers to the skin and produces the telltale rash of shingles.

An appropriate shingles care plan will employ multiple strategies to help you overcome the varicella zoster virus and cope with the symptoms. You can take medications to help boost your immune system, and relieve the pain and itching associated with the rash, and topical treatments for shingles will soothe the rash directly. Your shingles doctor will most likely be your primary care physician. It is important that you see your doctor as soon as possible after possible shingles symptoms appear so you can get treatment that will effectively reduce the duration of your shingles rash. More severe cases may require shingles treatment from a dermatologist, who can help treat the rash and skin infections, or a neurologist, who can deal with severe or chronic nerve pain.

What to Expect at the Doctor’s Office

There is no immediate cure for shingles. The disease will have to run its course. However, there are a number of medical treatments proven to relieve symptoms and fight the varicella zoster virus:

  • Antiviral medications. If you get to your doctor within 72 hours of first developing a shingles rash, he or she can reduce the length of your shingles infection by days through the use of antiviral medications. Antivirals are the first line of shingles treatment.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants. These prescription drugs have been proven effective in dulling the pain associated with shingles. They also reduce your chances of developing postherpetic neuralgia, a shingles complication that causes continued pain even after the rash has cleared.
  • Opioids. Drugs like oxycodone, morphine, and codeine can relieve shingles pain.
  • Steroids. Anti-inflammatory medications like corticosteroids can reduce the swelling of the shingles rash and lower the intensity and duration of your pain symptoms.

Your doctor will create a shingles care plan for you and prescribe medications based on a number of factors, including:

  • Your age and overall health
  • How advanced your shingles infection is
  • Your medical history and proven tolerance for different medications and therapies
  • How your shingles is likely to evolve over time
  • What you are willing to do to treat your shingles

At-Home Shingles Care

In addition to the medication that your doctor probably prescribed, much of shingles treatment involves home health care you can do for yourself to relieve your symptoms and prevent complications:

  • Get plenty of rest. The shingles virus is opportunistic and flourishes when your immune system is compromised. Rest is critical to strengthen your immune response to the disease.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Dry skin can cause your shingles rash to become more irritated. Staying hydrated helps keep your skin from drying out.
  • Use soothing skin care. Calamine lotion or other soothing lotions can help treat some of the itching and burning from your rash.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers. Medications like aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen are recommended for relieving itching, burning, and pain.
  • Apply cold compresses. A clean cloth soaked in cold water or an astringent cooling agent can soothe your rash.
  • Practice good hygiene. Bathe yourself daily to reduce your chance of bacterial infection.
  • Clip your fingernails. Keeping your nails clean and trimmed will reduce scratching, which can cause scarring and infection.

Call your doctor if there is any change in your condition — for example, if your rash continues to spread or if your pain increases. The physician will be able to adjust your shingles care plan accordingly and keep you on the road to recovery.