Q and A: Shake Shingles Off Naturally
Dear Dr. Susan,
QUESTION I went to my doctor with a painful rash on my chest, and she diagnosed it as shingles. Two weeks later, even just having my blouse touch my skin is excruciating. I've read it can take months to recover. How can I make sure this never happens again? —Valerie
I know how agonizing a shingles outbreak can be, and I'm sorry you are dealing with it! Let me explain why you are experiencing this and what you can do to alleviate the pain and make sure it doesn't happen again. As a child, you had and recovered from chicken-pox.
Once you recovered, that virus—varicella zoster virus (VZV)—went dormant inside one or two of your sensory nerves. And now, decades later, that virus has come out of dormancy and is causing Herpes zoster, also known as shingles.
Typically, the inflammation of shingles first causes itching and burning, then stabbing pain and extreme sensitivity, in a swath of skin around the affected nerve. Blisters appear, break open, ooze, and eventually heal without scarring.
Depending on which nerve the virus is in, shingles can happen anywhere on your body, but they most commonly appear on the torso. The shingles won't spread, but contact with the ooze can give chickenpox to anyone who hasn't had it before.
Most healthy people recover on their own within four weeks. But in about 15 percent of cases, the inflammation flares hot enough to damage affected nerves, causing postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN causes even worse pain and can persist for years.
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Preventing PHN requires the dampening of the inflammation before the damage occurs.
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles—the lifetime risk is about 33 percent. However, after age 50, the risk starts going up, thanks to the age-related weakening of the immune system.
By age 85, your odds of getting shingles are up to 50 percent. Your risk of PHN goes up with age, too (Archives of Dermatology). And, if two or more family members ever had shingles, your risk can soar up to 14 times higher!
How to Shake the Shingles
The following natural therapies help reduce shingles inflammation and boost your virus-fighting immune strength, regardless of your age.
► Try infrared therapy during outbreaks and for prevention.
Studies show that infrared therapy speeds healing of damaged nerves (Neuroscience) and significantly reduces neuropathic pain ( Journal of Diabetes and its Complications).
► "Iced tea."
An effective topical treatment for shingles pain and inflammation is the combination of an ice pack and the powerful antioxidants in green tea. Soak a clean cotton cloth (large enough to completely cover the affected skin) in organic green tea that has cooled to room temperature.
Squeeze out the excess and place the cloth over the affected skin.
Lay an ice pack on top. Leave it in place up to 15 minutes while you breathe deeply or meditate. Meditation in particular has been proven effective in relieving symptoms of PHN (Alternative Medicine Review). This treatment can be repeated every hour as needed to dampen inflammation and pain.
Natural foods and supplements to inhibit inflammatory conditions
Quercetin. Found in apples and onions, quercetin is a flavonoid with antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties that can inhibit the formation of inflammatory accelerants called leukotrienes. I recommend 500 mg twice daily until symptoms have completely resolved.
Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). The risk of contracting shingles increases with age-related weakening of the immune system, and vitamin D3 is a proven immune strengthener (Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology).
I recommend up to 2,500 IU of vitamin D3 every other day until skin lesions heal, then 400 mg daily thereafter.
Echinacea purpurea (EP) has been proven to enhance cellular immunity (Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology), which is critical to defeating VZV. I particularly like Echinamide (available at www.iherb.com) which includes EP's immune-stimulating polysaccharides, alkyl-amides, and cichoric acids. I recommend 400 mg four times daily until skin lesions heal.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs). In addition to their anti-inflammatory properties, EFAs play a vital role in nerve repair (Nutrition Reviews). I recommend 1,000-3,000 mg from fish oil.
I think you'll find that these treatments and supplements help reduce pain during your current outbreak and prevent future outbreaks. ■
The Shingles Vaccine
The shingles vaccine, Zostavax, got FDA licensure in May 2006. In 2008, the CDC officially recommended it for all people between ages 60 and 80 except for those who are immune compromised because, in them, the vaccine may actually cause shingles.
There are a few pros to this vaccine: 11. It reportedly prevents PHN about two-thirds of the time.
► If you get shingles anyway, the vaccine supposedly helps make it less severe and go away faster. However, there are many more cons:
► The vaccine prevents shingles in only about half the people who get vaccinated.
► There are already rumblings that its effectiveness fades over time (Morbidity and Mortality).
► The vaccine occasionally causes shingles.
► Many insurance companies won't pay for it, and it costs $150, plus the office visit.
► Most people recover from shingles without treatment.
In general, I recommend avoiding this vaccine unless you and your doctor determine that you are at very high risk (such as if two or more family members have had shingles).
Here's wishing you the very best as you gather your strength and conquer this and other ailments.
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"Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven." ~ James 5:14-15