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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. jeanette
    New Jersey

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. james arnold

    how much did you take?

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