Coping With Shingles

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Shingles can be itchy and/or painful for weeks—sometimes months—at a time, making coping with the symptoms an important part of any treatment plan. On top of managing the physical discomfort with cold compresses and oatmeal baths, there are things you can do to relieve the emotional stress of shingles, too, including meditation and other relaxation techniques.

Emotional

Being in a lot of pain or feeling constantly itchy can be a challenging experience, and that stress can actually make the pain more intense, which can lead to more stress, and so on. Keeping frazzled nerves at bay is key to breaking that vicious cycle.

Some strategies shown to help people reduce stress include meditation, getting plenty of rest, and exercise.

Meditation

While studies are somewhat mixed on how effective meditation might be (if at all) at reducing pain itself, research has shown it to be quite good at reducing stress and that can be a helpful tool to manage pain—even if it doesn’t make it go away. For this reason, it’s been used to help reduce stress in a wide range of individuals who experience physical or emotional pain, including those with cancer or depression.

While the word “meditation” might conjure up images of sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed and fingers touching, there are actually a lot of different ways to meditate. The important thing is to find what works for you. That being said, most meditation methods include the following steps: 

  • Find a quiet place with few or no distractions.
  • Set yourself up in a comfortable position, such as sitting in a cozy chair, lying down, or walking slowly.
  • Focus your attention on a specific word or phrase, object, sound, or your breathing.
  • Keep an open attitude, allowing your thoughts and any distractions to flow freely in your brain without judging or suppressing them. You can do this by visualizing accepting each thought like it were an object being handed to you and then "releasing" that thought by passing it to someone else, placing it in a box, or letting go of it like a balloon. This visualization can help you acknowledge your pain without dwelling on it.

Sleep

Everyone needs sleep to recharge our bodies, but rest is especially important during times of illness.

Most health experts recommend getting at least seven to nine hours of sleep a night, though some people might need more or less—especially if they aren't feeling well. Not getting enough hours of quality shut-eye can affect how quickly the body can repair itself and leave you feeling tired and irritable. Like the stress-pain cycle, sleep deprivation can lead to stress and that stress can make it harder to sleep, potentially leading to a downward spiral that could impact how quickly you recover when sick.

Getting enough sleep (at least seven hours per night) is an important part not just for managing your stress levels but also for helping ensure your immune system has the energy it needs to fight back against the varicella-zoster virus, the pathogen that causes shingles

Exercise

Getting up and moving might feel like the last thing you want to do when you have an itchy or painful shingles rash, but exercise can reduce stress by releasing mood-lifting chemicals in the brain. The trick is finding some light physical activities you can do that aren’t too uncomfortable but will still get your muscles moving, such as going for a walk or practicing yoga.

Physical

The rash and blisters associated with shingles can be highly uncomfortable. On top of the itchiness, shingles can be physically painful, causing pain or burning at the site of the rash, as well as headaches and extreme sensitivity.

For most people, over-the-counter medications and home remedies can be used to manage these symptoms effectively. 

Itchiness 

Scratching a shingles rash can put you at risk for developing a secondary skin infection or inadvertently spreading the virus to other people. To avoid scratching or picking at the rash or blisters, try using one or more of the following methods to manage itchiness:

  • Colloidal oatmeal baths, using cool or lukewarm water
  • Calamine lotion
  • Cool, wet compresses
  • Topical cream containing capsaicin (a pepper extract), such as Zostrix
  • Antihistamines, like Benadryl

Even with these methods, you might still experience some itching. Do your best not to scratch the affected area, and prevent infection by covering blisters—especially those that have already broken open—with dry, non-stick bandages.

Keep the area clean using soap and warm (but not hot) water. All sheets and clothing that touch your open sores should be washed in hot water, and used bandages should be thrown away immediately. 

Pain and Sensitivity Management 

For some individuals, the pain associated with shingles can get pretty intense, and increased sensitivity can make even a cool breeze feel excruciating. To manage discomfort, try using one of the following methods, or combine them to find what works for you.

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help relieve bodily pain, as well as ease headaches and reduce fever. Talk to your doctor before taking any of these medications, however, because some may cause issues with your stomach or liver, depending on your medical history or dosage.
  • Cool compresses can be made using a washcloth held under cool water. Avoid using ice packs because extreme temperatures can make the pain worse or hurt sensitive skin.
  • Hypnosis has been shown to help relieve various forms of pain, though it might not work for everyone.
  • Comfort therapy—like listening to music, talking with friends, or doing other activities you enjoy—can help keep your mind off of the pain.
  • Wearing loose clothing, especially in areas where you might have increased sensitivity, can also help limit the likelihood of experiencing additional discomfort.

For those with severe pain or postherpetic neuralgia (PHN)—a complication from shingles that can cause long-term pain—these coping strategies might not be enough. In those instances, doctors might recommend using prescription painkillers, such as opioids, to manage the pain.

It should be noted, however, that these medications should only be used under the careful direction of a trained medical professional because of the potential for side effects and risk of addiction or overdose. 

Social

The pain and discomfort caused by shingles can impact more than just your physical well-being. Research shows that the more severe your symptoms, the greater their effect on emotional and social health, too.

Maintaining strong social ties has been shown to improve health a number of ways, including helping with pain management. Similarly, social isolation can diminish immunity, potentially making it easier to get sick and harder to recover when you do. While you might not feel up to attending parties or going to crowded spaces (an unwise decision if you're actively contagious anyway) there are still things you can do to maintain your social health while sick or recovering.

Finding loved ones you can talk to about the pain or distract you from what you’re feeling can be helpful in coping with the stress or physical discomfort associated with shingles. Roughly a third of people in the United States will get shingles at least once in their lifetime, making it likely that you already know someone who has gone through a similar experience and can empathize.

In addition to your already established social network, online support groups can be great places, too, to talk about your experience with others who have been in similar situations. But while these groups can offer comfort and encouragement, they aren't the right place to ask for medical advice. If you have questions or concerns about your specific symptoms or treatment plan, you should always refer them to your doctor.

Practical

The physical discomfort from shingles can be disruptive, at times keeping you from doing routine tasks that are important for daily life. If that happens, it's important to know what options might be available to you while you recover.  

Work Considerations 

Unlike a cold or stomach bug, shingles can sometimes last for weeks, which can be challenging for employees who don't have enough sick leave saved up or any sick leave at all at their jobs.

Talk to your doctor about when can safely return to work and what precautions you should take if you do. If possible, try to avoid being around pregnant women or small children while you have blisters or open sores, as it could increase your chances of spreading the virus to them.

In cases of PHN or severe, debilitating pain caused by shingles, it's possible you'll need more time to recover than your human resources rules typically allow—in which case, you might be eligible for short-term disability coverage through your employer. Through these plans, employees are sometimes able to get at least a part of their salary during the time they are out on disability, though you might need to jump through some hoops to get it.

Talk to your boss or human resources department for more information about whether short-term disability coverage could be an option for you and what steps you'd need to take to secure it.

Personal Tasks 

If you're unable to perform routine tasks for yourself like cooking, cleaning, or getting groceries, try to recruit family or friends to help you while you recover. Loved ones eager to help might not know what you need them to do, so be proactive with requesting assistance if you need it.

Call a friend to see if they wouldn't mind swinging by with healthy takeout, or ask a family member to lend a hand cleaning up your kitchen. These visits have the added benefit of providing social support, which can also be beneficial in your recovery. 

Caregiving for Someone With Shingles
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