Varicella Zoster and Antiviral Medications

Varicella Zoster is a virus and it can be quite miserable.

This is the virus that causes chicken pox in children, and shingles in adults. If you had chickenpox as a child you are at risk for developing shingles as an adult.






Common Childhood Illness

Chickenpox most commonly causes a blistering rash that lasts for 5 to 7 days, and then the blisters crust over and begin to heal. Severe cases may cause permanent scarring.

When you get over an episode of chicken pox the Varicella Zoster virus is not removed from your body.

Can be Dormant for Decades

It more commonly will go dormant and continue to live in your nerves for decades.

In later life it can reactivate and travel down to the nerve endings and begin causing the symptoms of shingles.

Similar to chickenpox, shingles can also cause a blistering rash. Along with the rash shingles can also cause nerve pain.

Burning or Stinging Pain

Nerve pain may feel burning or stinging and can be quite severe in some people. Other people will have pain that is not as severe, and it may have a tingling or itching quality.

Child with Chickenpox  

Image thanks to Thomas Netsch, via Wikimedia Commons


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Treating the Pain of Varicella Zoster

Anti-seizure medications such as gabapentin or Lyrica may be helpful for the neuropathic pain.

For more severe pain some people will require narcotic pain medications such as hydrocodone or oxycodone.

Treating the Virus

Viruses can be treated with antiviral medications such as acyclovir, famciclovir, or valacyclovir. These treatments will limit the rash and reduce the pain of shingles. 

They are most important for people over the age of 50 and anyone with a suppressed immune system. 

Do Not Cure the Disease

Unfortunately, these therapies do not cure the disease or remove the virus from your body. The virus continues to live in your body between outbreaks. 

These medications will limit the severity of symptoms and shorten their duration. They work by preventing the Varicella Zoster virus from multiplying. They will need to be prescribed by your doctor, but they can make your eruption shorter and less severe.

Need to Start Within 72 hours

These medications are most effective when started within 72 hours of you starting to notice your symptoms.

Another benefit of antiviral medications is that they can lessen the risks and severity of postherpetic neuralgia.

Possible Nerve Damage

Postherpetic neuralgia is the result of nerve damage that occurs during an episode of shingles. It can cause a burning tingling kind of pain that can last for weeks or even months.

Any medication can have side effects, but if the side effects are minor and easy to tolerate they may be worth the benefits. 

Possible Severe Side Effects of Anti-Viral Medications

     • Swelling of the Face or Throat

     • Difficulty breathing

     • Seizures

     • Hives

     • Difficulty Thinking Clearly

Severe side effects are uncommon but if you have difficulty breathing you should call 911 immediately. If you experience other severe symptoms you should contact your doctor.

More Common and Less Severe Side Effects 

     • Headache

     • Nausea

     • Abdominal Pain

     • Diarrhea

You should discuss these side effects with your doctor but if they are tolerable they may be worth the benefits of these antiviral medications.



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