What is Shingles?
Varicella zoster, the virus that causes shingles, is a herpes virus. Shingles, or herpes zoster, is an acute infection caused by reactivation of the chickenpox virus.
Shingles is known for its extreme pain and long recovery time, although not all infections are so severe. It typically appears along the branch of one nerve on one side of the body – most commonly along the back and chest or on the face. Initially the skin is highly sensitive and burns with pain. Shingles can also begin with general flu-like symptoms such as aching, chills and fever. Over the course of several days, the skin becomes red and very painful to touch. Water-filled blisters then emerge, which ultimately open and form crusts as they heal.
In most cases, recovery occurs within about two or three weeks from the appearance of the rash, although the nerve pain can last longer. Scarring is rare. Nerve pain occasionally lasts for years, but this is much more likely in the elderly. Rarely, shingles on the face may affect the eye and lead to more serious complications. Shingles is more likely to occur in people over the age of fifty, though it can arise at any age.
The pain of shingles is caused by an inflammation of the affected nerve that lies just beneath the skin’s surface. After causing the childhood illness of chicken pox, the virus retreats into the nervous system where it remains dormant. It reappears in the form of shingles, only if the immune system is weakened, or as a result of a more severe or lengthy illness, extreme stress, or treatment that has involved suppression of the immune system. Overall health and nutrition tend to determine the severity of illness and length of recovery.
Whole grains and legumes provide B vitamins, which are important for nerve health. Eggs and fish provide vitamins B12 and B1, which are especially important in treating shingles. Yellow, orange and green vegetables – particularly carrots – and citrus fruits provide vitamins A and C, which assist in the healing of skin lesions. Green, leafy vegetables provide calcium and magnesium, important for the health of nerve endings and the transmission of nerve impulses.
Stress and depression do seem to increase the likelihood of a shingles outbreak. How a stressful event is perceived appears to be more significant than the event itself.
Nutritional supplement treatment options
Adenosine monophosphate (AMP), a compound that occurs naturally in the body, has been found to be effective against shingles outbreaks. Double-blind trials have shown that AMP promoted faster healing and reduced the duration of pain of the shingles. In addition, it appeared to prevent the development of post-herpetic neuralgia.
Vitamin B12 may relieve the symptoms of post-herpetic neuralgia. Injections are likely to be more effective, but results can also be seen with oral supplements.
Vitamin E has also been shown effective in reducing the symptoms of postherpetic neuralgia, even in those who have had the problem for many years. Vitamin E oil can also be applied topically to the skin to relieve the pain. Several months of continuous vitamin E use may be needed in order to see an improvement.
Vitamin C is excellent for supporting the immune system and acts as an antiviral agent. Vitamin C should be taken up to bowel tolerance and withdrawn from therapy on a gradual basis to avoid a rebound deficiency. Bioflavonoids improve the absorption and use of vitamin C in the body and should be taken as well.
Phenylalanine relieves pain as it inhibits the breakdown of the body’s own endorphins.
Other supplements that may help include zinc and coenzyme Q10. Drink aloe vera juice daily, as well as green juices.
Botanical treatment options
The hot component of cayenne pepper, known as capsaicin, is useful to relieve the pain of post-herpetic neuralgia. Topical application of capsaicin cream has been shown to greatly reduce the pain. Two or more weeks of treatment may be required to get the full benefit of the cream.
Licorice is sometimes used as a topical agent for shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia. Glycyrrhizin, one of the active components of licorice, has been shown to block the replication of Varicella zoster. Licorice gel is usually applied three or more times per day. Licorice gel is not widely available but an adequate alternative is to mix licorice tincture with an aqueous gel or cream and apply.
Echinacea in high dosages works well for pain control. The tincture can be taken hourly or more often as required, but this is not recommended for long-term use.
During an outbreak, apply healing clay or quark compresses. Once the blisters have started to dry:
- Vinegar compresses help to relieve nerve pain. After the shingles attack subsides and the blisters dry up, mix 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar with 2 cups of water, moisten a clean cotton face-cloth with the solution and rub the affected area upwards towards the heart
- Alternatively, use a mix of 1 part tea tree oil with 10 parts olive oil or any other cold-pressed oil. Warm the mixture and apply to the painful area two to three times daily until pain subsides
- Add 10 drops of tea tree oil to warm water to wash the affected areas. Pat dry with a cotton cloth and apply drying powder to open blisters or dab on fresh plant extract of lemon balm and calendula
- Cabbage-leaf poultices help absorb toxins and speed healing
Intravenous vitamin C can halt shingles before infection becomes serious. It also reduces the pain associated with this disorder.
Zinc ointments applied topically to the blisters speeds healing.
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Article contributed by Dr Tracy S Gates, DO, DIBAK, L.C.P.H., Consultant, Pure Bio Ltd. Copyright © Pure Bio Ltd 2023. All rights reserved. Pure Bio Ltd are a leading UK supplier of the highest quality PURE nutritional supplements, based in Horsham, West Sussex.
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