It’s an odd name for a nasty condition: shingles. It has nothing to do with roofing. The Latin name, cingulum, meaning “belt,” became “shingles” in early English. The Latin name is a reference to the strips of rash on one side of the body.
Shingles is a painful skin condition that can develop in anyone who has had chickenpox. The virus that causes chickenpox, Varicella zoster virus (VZV), is a member of the herpes family. It goes into hiding when a person recovers from chickenpox, but many years later if age, illness or stress weakens the immune system, VZV can reappear. It causes extreme tenderness along the path of the affected nerve. Within a few days, a blistering rash appears.
Shingles usually attacks older people, but even individuals in their 40s may suffer. Prescription anti-viral drugs such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) or valacyclovir (Valtrex) can shorten the duration and intensity of the attack. These drugs are most effective if taken within a few days of the initial symptoms.
There is now a shingles vaccine, Zostavax, that halves the chance of coming down with shingles. It also seems to reduce the severity of the attacks that occur.
Some people have wondered if they should get vaccinated after they have had shingles. One reader wrote:

“I had shingles many years ago. So did my friend. Her doctor gave her a shingles shot so she won’t get it again. My doctor said by having shingles I built antibodies to it and don’t need the shot. Which doctor is correct?”

Data just published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings (February, 2011) show that people can get shingles more than once. As a result, it makes sense to get vaccinated even after having shingles. People are urged to get the shot after they turn 60 and not to wait until they are debilitated. The shot is considered much less reliable if the immune system is weakened.
People with shingles are often desperate, like this reader:

“I have recently had an outbreak of shingles, even though I had the vaccine last year. This is the sixth week of constant burning pain with the rash gradually fading. It covers the right side of my chest, shoulder and back of neck.
“The doctor gave me Vicodin and lidocaine patches for the pain. Is there anything natural that I could take for this nerve pain?”

Readers of this column have offered several suggestions. One person took L-lysine twice a day, on the theory that it helps heal cold sores (caused by a different herpes virus). She reported: “I didn’t have all the after-pain and the rash disappeared fast.” Another reader reported success from adenosine monophosphate injections, based on decades-old preliminary research (Journal of the American Medical Association, March 8, 1985).
One popular home remedy is Listerine:

“An unemployed friend without health insurance had an outbreak of shingles on the right side of his face. It made his ear and jaw ache and the rash was becoming raw. I found a brief mention of using Listerine on shingles, and he tried it. After 72 hours of thrice daily application of Listerine, the sores have dried up and are scabbing over, his pain is almost gone and he is healing nicely.”

Home remedies remain untested, so preventing an outbreak is best. The vaccine offers that possibility.

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  1. Jo G.

    I had a mild case of shingles 2 years ago. Two-three weeks of bad back pain and then 2 small patches on back at waistband.

    Began with back and right hip pain approximately 3 weeks ago. Thought at first kidney stone. Have a history of those, too. Two weeks ago severe pain radiating to front. Went to urgent care, found blood in urine. Given pain shot and rx for UTI like at 9:00 a.m. At 5:30 p.m. to ER in uncontrollably pain. Ct no sign of stone; but, 2+ bacteria. Given toradol and rocephin iv. Still could not stay on table, given dilaudin iv. (I’m one that benadryl knocks out, usually.)

    Continued in pain. Tuesday, started breaking out with a severe case! Wednesday, started on zovarax and medrol dose pack and had to take 2 lortabs 5, 3x a day to try to maintain and phenergan for nausea.

    Pain is still horrific! Feel like I’m going to lose my mind. Ran out of pain pills and pmd gave me 15 to do til I see rheumatologist this Wed; as, she is the one over them. Have rx from her for one 2x a day for osteoarthritis, fibromyalagia, etc.

    Please give me any advice you can. Pain is excruciating!

  2. jo

    My back started to hurt Monday and increased to where I couldn’t stand it by Friday. Saturday I woke up with shingles on back, chest, head, right arm and left foot. Break out was severe on right arm. Was on Valtrex for 10 day times 3 times a day. Had bad pain but went to work after 1 week. After working
    for 2 and a half weeks the pain came back. I thought of giving it
    bed rest. After a half week of now
    severe pain I went back to Dr. And requested Vatrex treatment again. He gave another 10 day treatment. Pain again went away after the second day. After this treatment pain gradually came back but not severe. Still seems like someone is cutting me but alot less. I had told the dr. That with at least 4 more days of valtrex I thought I could finally get rid of the pain. But he mention it could cause other side effects. I’m on my 8th week of shingles and on my 5th week of bedrest. I feel better after 3 days of rest but on my 4th day I go out alittle which causes pain the following 3 days. I have done this three times already. I’m still taking vitamin A, B12, C, E, iron, lycine, neurontin and ibuprofin. I did use Tylenol 3 and am using ibuprofin but nothing has helped for the pain except for the Valtrex. I’m hoping that time, rest and prayer will eventually knock it out. I even tried apple cider vinegar and it did not help. my pain was severe as what people write about. My shingles pain felt like someone was cutting into me with no relief. If one out 3 people are going to get shingles, then a priority should be considered to find a cure especially since this is mostly, an elderly disease with long term, torture like feeling.

  3. lisa

    I had shingles virus not that long ago I am on pain management for my pain it has been all most a year but still burning pain like it was yesterday. A lot of times my pain on the left side of my body hurts so bad when I move.

  4. Nancy

    I had shingles on the right side of my lower back and now have excruciating pain. Is this normal? I am 7 weeks into them.

    • ron

      no such thing as normal with shingles. some have easy cases some have cases that never seem to end. really tough stuff. i am on day 13 and about to lose my mind with pain.

  5. jeanette
    New Jersey

    What about not being able to lift arm is that a symptom of shingles?

  6. Z

    I woke yesterday with a burning pain in my left armpit and down the inside of the upper arm. Since I was also having heart palpitations, I went immediately to the doctor. My EKG was fine and he thinks this an early sign of shingles. I have no blisters (yet?) so I was told to check my skin a couple of times per day to see if I get the rash.

    Has anyone else had this symptom?
    Can I only have the pain and no rash?

    • The People's Pharmacy

      The pain frequently appears before the rash, making an early diagnosis and prompt treatment more difficult.

    • jo

      I had muscle contractions on my back and neck for a week till I couldn’t stand it. My outbreak was severe. Don’t wait till it gets severe muscle pain. Because that only increase the severity of the outbreak like mine. I should have gone to dr. To get treated but iwaited and was thinking of getting a massage not knowing Iit was shingles.

  7. jo s.
    polson mt

    My husband got the shingles almost 4 years ago on the left side of his head over the ear. He has suffered so much with the immense pain he has every day, something should be out there that can help him. Dr’s can’t seem to help. Along with 2 unsuccessful back surgeries and having diabetes also, I think someone should be able to help.

  8. Jam P

    I had my 2nd outbreak of shingles this year 2014 & I’m only 28. The doctor prescribed valtrax & prednidone. Couple of days later I had excruciating lower back pain. Felt like my kidneys were about to explode. Is that a symptom of shingles? My flare up on my inner thigh went away but now I have nerve pain in my buttocks, legs, & sometimes upper body. It seems like it affected most of my nerve endings. Still contemplating whether I should get the vaccine. I work in a pharmacy so we do have it & my job may cover the costs.

  9. DUS

    I had shingles in May 2014, after 3 weeks when all blisters were cleared, I started feeling burning pain on the area — my left forehead, around the left eye–where I had blisters. Any suggestion to get rid of this continuous pain ? I had 1 week FAMVIR –3 times a day 500mg capsules and doctor gave me Tylenol #3 as a pain killer.
    Opthamologist checked my eye 2 times and its good every way. She checked my eye last time after 4 weeks and said there is some virus in your eye to and she said let it heel itself for 2 weeks otherwise I would put you on FAMVIR for some more time. Any suggestion on getting rid of this burning pain would be appreciated.

  10. S. H.

    My friend gets them all the time and as soon as she feels it coming on she puts deodorant on it and clears it right up. I don’t know what brand of deodorant.

  11. james arnold

    how much did you take?

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