What is Shingles?
Shingles is a viral condition which causes painful and unsightly blisters on one side of the body.
The medical name of Shingles is Herpes Zoster, but, though a part of the Herpes group of viral infections, it is not related to genital herpes, as it comes from a different virus. The virus which causes Shingles is called varicella–zoster, the same one which causes Chicken Pox (as opposed to the herpes simplex virus which causes cold sores and genital herpes).
What causes Shingles?
Because it is the same virus as Chicken Pox, you have to have had Chicken Pox in the past. Although you won’t then get Chicken Pox itself, the virus lies dormant in the spinal cord. Under certain circumstances, the virus is resuscitated and travels down a sensory nerve and manifests itself as a rash on the skin surrounding the nerve.
It appears that, under normal circumstances, the immune system is more than capable of keeping the virus under control and therefore dormant. When the virus suddenly ‘wakes up’ after, perhaps, many years of lying dormant, it is likely because the immune system is weakened. It is therefore more common in people:
- over 60
- with weakened immune system; e.g. due to AIDS or cancer
- under heavy emotional stress
How do you recognize Shingles?
It is possible to feel pain, even quite severe pain for no apparent reason, several days prior to the symptoms on the skin. When the skin symptoms arrive, they appear as blisters on a reddish background. The blisters eventually burst, oozing fluid, then crust over and eventually heal. New blisters continue to form over a period of several days. In rare cases, however, blisters don’t actually appear at all.
Because it is an infection of a nerve, the rash expands outwards from the infected nerve. It only affects one side of the body and is unusual for more than one nerve to be affected.
Is Shingles contagious?
Yes & no. In the period when the blisters are forming, it is possible to pass the virus to someone who has never had Chicken Pox. However, that person would develop Chicken Pox, not Shingles. in later life, of course, they may themselves develop Shingles. You can’t give Shingles to someone who has had Chicken Pox. When all the blisters have stopped developing and formed a crust, the virus cannot be spread.
How long does Shingles last?
The formation of blisters lasts about 3-5 days and the whole process about 3-4 weeks. Most often the patient heals without any further problems. Occasionally the nerves can be damaged and patient can suffer from ‘post-herpatic neuralgia’ in which pain can persist after the rash has disappeared. A more dangerous condition can occur when the virus has affected the face and the condition can spread to the eyes, potentially causing a loss of vision.
Can you avoid or reduce the chances of getting Shingles?
If you have never had Chicken Pox, you would be well advised (as an adult) where possible, to avoid contact with people with Chicken Pox or Shingles. [Opinions on getting Chicken Pox as a child varies. Some doctors think it’s better to get it as a child when it’s less severe than having it as an adult. Immunisation against Chicken Pox is now given in the USA but not in the UK.]
If you have had Chicken Pox, you will always carry the risk of Shingles appearing at some point in the future. It affects about 1 in 5 of the population in the UK and the USA, for example.
There is some research evidence to show that for people receiving an immunization boost against the varicella-zoster virus to older people who have previously had Chicken Pox, there is about a 50% reduction in the chances of getting Shingles.
The best advice otherwise is to try to keep your immune system up to strength with a good diet and exercise and to try to avoid excessive stress where possible.
How is Shingles treated?
Even the prescribed drugs don’t actually kill the virus as such, so the aim is to reduce the pain and irritation and speed up the healing process.
Drugs for Shingles
Some patients will be prescribed an anti-viral drug by their doctor, such as Aciclovir, but this is not automatic and depends on circumstances.
Home remedies for Shingles
Natural treatments which have positive reports from users include the following:
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)– This is one of the most talked about from sufferers; ACV can be taken both externally or internally. Externally, it is usually applied directly with a cotton swab. Although it can be a little uncomfortable, the results appear to make it worthwhile. However, if it is very uncomfortable, do not proceed. Internally, 2 or 3 tablespoons are taken, usually with a little honey or something to improve the taste.
Lysine – studies have shown strong evidence that the amino acid Lysine has a powerful effect on both the speed of recovery from the herpes group of illnesses and reduction in the likelihood of recurrence. There also appears to be a link with the balance between Lysine and another amino acid, Arginine. Arginine is good for some things but the effectiveness of herpes viruses to reproduce is less when there is more Lysine than Arginine. Lysine cannot be made by the body. so we get it from foods such as fish, certain types of meat, such as beef, lamb or chicken, and most fruits and vegetables and dairy produce. However, for the amounts required, you would need a Lysine supplement. Foods containing Arginine to avoid include nuts and chocolate (I know, sorry).
Cayenne Pepper – like ACV, it can be both applied externally in a paste and taken internally with food.
Aloe Vera – applied externally
Tea Tree Oil ointment
Lemon Balm cream
Cat’s Claw – a herb thought to improve the immune system. Do Not take when pregnant.
Vitamins C and E – supplements known to improve the immune system may also help.
Acupuncture – some have reported great success for Shingles
In practice, many people have combined several of the externally applied products above made into a paste (with corn flour or similar).
In general terms the following may help:
- Wearing light cotton clothing can be less irritating against affected skin
- Cooling the area with ice cubes or wet dressings may also ease the pain or irritation.
- Pain killers may be required in more painful cases in the short term.