FPIN’s Clinical Inquiries
Treatment of Herpes Zoster
Am Fam Physician. 2006 Mar 1;73(5):882-884.
What is the best treatment for patients with an outbreak of herpes zoster?
Resolution of acute pain related to herpes zoster is accelerated with any of the following: oral acyclovir (Zovirax) 800 mg five times daily for seven days; valacyclovir (Valtrex) 1,000 mg three times daily for seven days; or famciclovir (Famvir) 750 mg once daily, 500 mg twice daily, or 250 mg three times daily for seven days. (Strength of recommendation: A)
Famciclovir and acyclovir are similarly effective at improving the rate of lesion healing. (Strength of recommendation: B)
Oral valacyclovir may be slightly superior to acyclovir for resolution of acute pain. (Strength of recommendation: B)
Acyclovir 800 mg five times daily for seven to 10 days reduces the occurrence of postherpetic neuralgia. (Strength of recommendation: A)
Oral corticosteroids given during the acute phase of the illness have not been shown to reduce the incidence or severity of postherpetic neuralgia. (Strength of recommendation: B)
There is no evidence to support the use of tricyclic antidepressants or anticonvulsants for the management of herpes zoster. (Strength of recommendation: B)
TABLE 1 Summary of Treatment Outcomes for Herpes Zoster: Systematic Reviews and Randomized Control Trials (RCTs)
Summary of Treatment Outcomes for Herpes Zoster: Systematic Reviews and Randomized Control Trials (RCTs)
Wood, et al1 n=1076), meta-analysis
Acyclovir (Zovirax) 800 mg five times daily for seven days is better than placebo for resolution of pain
Beutner, et al2 (n=760), RCT
Valacyclovir (Valtrex) 1,000 mg three times daily for seven days is better than acyclovir 800 mg five times daily for seven days for resolution of pain.
Tyring, et al3 (n=419), RCT
Famciclovir (Famvir) 500 mg three times daily or 750 mg three times daily for seven days increases rate of lesion healing better than placebo.
Shen, et al4 (n=55), RCT
Famciclovir 250 mg three times daily for seven days is equal to acyclovir 800 mg five times daily for seven days for resolution of pain and rate of lesion healing.
Shafran, et al5 (n=559), RCT
Famciclovir 750 mg once daily for seven days, 500 mg twice daily for seven days, 250 mg three times daily for seven days, and acyclovir 800 mg five times daily for seven days are all equally effective for resolution of pain and rate of lesion healing.
TREATMENT OF ACUTE HERPES ZOSTER
A meta-analysis of five randomized controlled trials (RCTs) considered the time to complete resolution of acute herpes zoster pain.1 When treatment (acyclovir 800 mg five times daily for seven days) was initiated within 48 hours, complete resolution of pain occurred sooner than with placebo (28 versus 62 days, P < .005). This also was true when treatment was initiated between 48 and 72 hours (28 versus 58 days, P = .04).
A single RCT2 compared valacyclovir (1,000 mg three times daily for seven days) with acyclovir (800 mg five times daily for seven days). This study found that the mean times to complete resolution of pain were 44 days for valacyclovir and 51 days for acyclovir when treated within 48 hours (P = .03).2 When treatment was initiated between 48 and 72 hours after the onset of symptoms, the mean times to complete resolution of pain were 36 days for valacyclovir and 48 days for acyclovir (P = .02).
Another RCT3 compared two dosage regimens of famciclovir (500 mg three times daily for seven days or 750 mg three times daily for seven days) with placebo in 419 adults treated within 72 hours of symptom onset. Famciclovir slightly accelerated the rate of lesion healing compared with placebo (median difference of one to two days for different doses and lesion endpoints).
In a single RCT4 with 55 patients, famciclovir (250 mg three times daily for seven days) was shown to have equal effectiveness to acyclovir (800 mg five times daily for seven days). This small and possibly underpowered study found that there was no significant difference regarding the median time to full lesion crusting, the rate of full crusting at day 28, the median time to resolution of acute pain, or the rate of acute pain at 28 days.
Three different dosage regimens of famciclovir (750 mg once daily for seven days, 500 mg twice daily for seven days, or 250 mg three times daily for seven days) and one regimen for acyclovir (800 mg five times daily for seven days) were compared in another RCT5 with 559 patients presenting within 72 hours of onset. The time to full crusting was similar (seven to eight days) for all four dosage regimens. There was no significant difference in time to acute pain resolution: 14 days for the acyclovir regimen, 17 days for famciclovir 250 mg three times daily, and 19 days for famciclovir 500 mg twice daily and 750 mg once daily).
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT OF POSTHERPETIC NEURALGIA
A systematic review6 considered 42 RCTs of therapies to prevent or reduce the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia pain. Acyclovir (800 mg five times daily for seven to 10 days) reduced the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia pain at three months (number needed to treat [NNT] = 3.2 to 8.0).
Famciclovir reduced the duration of postherpetic neuralgia pain better than placebo.3 The time to resolution of pain in patients 50 years of age or older was significantly shorter for two dosages of famciclovir (500 mg [P = .004] or 750 mg [P = .003] given three times daily for seven days) than for placebo (63 versus 163 days).
Systemic steroids have demonstrated no additional benefit. Studies examining amitriptyline, narcotics, capsaicin, anticonvulsants, and percutaneous nerve stimulation for postherpetic neuralgia were of fair to poor quality and no conclusions could be drawn from these.
Recommendations from Others
A consensus guideline from the International Herpes Management Forum6 recommends antiviral therapy with valacyclovir (1,000 mg three times daily for seven days) or famciclovir (250 mg or 500 mg three times daily for seven days) for immunocompetent adults older than 50 years; treatment should be initiated within 72 hours of rash onset. Systemic oral steroids are recommended to reduce acute symptoms. It also is recommended that tricyclic antidepressants be considered to reduce the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia in older patients. Topical antiviral agents are not recommended.
Appropriate care for patients with herpes zoster requires the entire office staff to understand the natural course of the illness and the need for early treatment (within 72 hours). Office assistants must recognize that prodromal pain symptoms or onset of rash are indications for an appointment that day to confirm the diagnosis and to begin treatment. Because the rash results in physical appearance changes, many patients have a high anxiety level about their illness. In addition, many myths exist about herpes zoster. Patient education should focus on infectivity, symptoms that require a follow-up office visit, and the importance of completing the entire course of medications.
1. Wood MJ, Shukla S, Fiddian AP, Crooks RJ. Treatment of acute herpes zoster: effect on early (< 48 h) versus late (48–72 h) therapy with acyclovir and valaciclovir on prolonged pain. J Infect Dis. 1998;178(suppl 1):S81–4.
2. Beutner KR, Friedman DJ, Forszpaniak C, Andersen PL, Wood MJ. Valaciclovir compared with acyclovir for improved therapy for herpes zoster in immunocompetent adults. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 1995;39:1546–53.
3. Tyring S, Barbarash RA, Nahlik JE, Cunningham A, Marley J, Heng M, et al. Famciclovir for treatment of acute herpes zoster: effects on acute disease and postherpetic neuralgia. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 1995;123:89–96.
4. Shen MC, Lin HH, Lee SS, Chen YS, Chiang PC, Liu YC. Double-blind, randomized, acyclovir-controlled, parallel-group trial comparing the safety and efficacy of famciclovir and acyclovir in patients with uncomplicated herpes zoster. J Microbiol Immunol Infect. 2004;37:75–81.
5. Shafran SD, Tyring SK, Ashton R, Decroix J, Forszpaniak C, Wade A, et al. Once, twice, or three times daily famciclovir compared with acyclovir for the oral treatment of herpes zoster in immunocompetent adults: a randomized, multicenter, double-blind clinical trial. J Clin Virol. 2004;29:248–53.
6. Alper BS, Lewis PR. Does treatment of acute herpes zoster prevent or shorten postherpetic neuralgia?. J Fam Pract. 2000;49:255–64.
7. Improving the management of varicella, herpes zoster, and zoster-associated pain. Johnson R, Patrick D, eds. International Herpes Management Forum 2001. Accessed online January 9, 2005, at: http://www.ihmf.org/Library/monograph/m_11.pdf.
Copyright Family Physicians Inquiries Network. Used with permission.
Clinical Inquiries provides answers to questions submitted by practicing family physicians to the Family Physicians Inquiries Network (FPIN). Members of the network select questions based on their relevance to family medicine. Answers are drawn from an approved set of evidence-based resources and undergo peer review. The strength of recommendations and the level of evidence for individual studies are rated using criteria developed by the Evidence-Based Medicine Working Group (http://www.cebm.net/levels_of_evidence.asp).
This series of Clinical Inquiries is coordinated for American Family Physician by John Epling, M.D., State University of New York Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, N.Y. The complete database of evidence-based questions and answers is copyrighted by FPIN. If you are interested in submitting questions to be answered or writing answers for this series, go to http://www.fpin.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions