Everything You Need to Know About Shingles: Causes, Prevention & TreatmentDr. Miranda Wiley, ND
June 29, 2018
Shingles is a return of the chicken pox virus (varicella/herpes zoster) later in life. More than 90% of Canadian adults have had chicken pox, but since it is a viral infection that most commonly affects small children most people don’t remember the experience. Even if they did, chicken pox and shingles are markedly different expressions of the same virus.
ChickenPox vs. Shingles
Chickenpox has red bumps and blisters that occur all over the body, and sometimes even internally such as inside the mouth. They usually follow a few days of a headache and fever, are fluid filled, and predominantly itchy. Once the blisters break and ooze they dry up and heal over the course of a few days to weeks.
Chickenpox in children is less serious than in teens or adults. In children, there is fever, overall discomfort, and itchiness, while in adults the infection can progress to pneumonia or even inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).
Shingles can also manifest as fluid-filled blisters over red skin but unlike chickenpox, the accompanying sensation is a pain rather than an itch. The shingles rash is caused by the chickenpox virus that has been inactive in the body taking advantage of an immune system that is weakened by age, stress, or other factors. The virus enters a nerve root and causes inflammation along its path. So the rash is usually limited to a strip of skin on one side of the body or the other. Most commonly it affects the trunk or face, rarely the arms and legs.
If the nerve affected covers the eye area then the virus can affect the eye directly. In the worse case scenario, this can cause blindness, although the incidence of that happening is quite rare.
For most people shingles comes, causes pain and blisters (and fever, general achiness, fatigue, and/or headaches), and then disappears within a few weeks. But for an unlucky 30% of people with shingles, the pain in the nerve root can last for months or even years after the blisters have healed and the skin has returned to normal colour. This is Post-Herpetic Neuralgia (PHN) and it’s a nasty lingering nerve pain that can be debilitating for some people.
Is Shingles Contagious?
The fluid within the blisters of both chicken pox and shingles rashes can infect someone who has never had chickenpox or been vaccinated against chicken pox, however, shingles are less contagious than chicken pox. That person may develop chickenpox but shingles cannot occur in a person who has never had chickenpox.
So you can’t contract shingles from another person, but you can get chicken pox from them and then later in life that virus could rear its ugly head and return as shingles. And unfortunately, it is possible to develop shingles more than once.
It’s unclear why the herpes zoster virus flares up in some people but remains dormant in others. Stress is a major trigger in many cases so we’re back to good ol’ stress management with powerful nutrition, rest, activity, laughter, and immune support throughout life.
Declining immune function associated with ageing also plays a part as the incidence of developing shingles increases with each decade (from a one-in-three chance of developing shingles in our 50’s, to a one-in-two chance in our 80’s).
Poor immune function as a result of certain medications or illness also increases the incidence of shingles. This makes sense, as a strong immune system will be better able to keep a dormant virus from “waking up” and wreaking havoc in the body.
There is a new shingles vaccine available in Canada as of late 2017. The original shingles vaccine (Zostavax) is a single injection of a weakened strain of the virus, while the newer one (Shingrix) requires two injections separated by 2-6 months. Shingrix is made up of a non-active form of the virus and appears to have greater efficacy at preventing shingles (97% efficacy vs. 70-90% with Zostavax). Reaction to the vaccine appears to be similar to most vaccine reactions: potential for local soreness and redness at the injection site, mild fever, muscle pain.
Treatment for Shingles
Since shingles is a viral disease it stands that anti-virals are the treatment of choice! There are pharmaceuticals that are used against the range of herpes virus infections (including cold sores, genital herpes, and shingles). If the eye is involved in the shingles outbreak then this would be the way to go.
There are lots of wonderful herbs that have anti-viral activity too that are helpful in supporting your immune system to prevent it, or get the shingles under control.
- St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is anti-viral AND a fantastic herb for supporting nerve health and healing, making it also a great choice for the treatment/prevention of post-herpetic neuralgia. It supports mood – which is helpful with shingles as people in pain tend to be understandably miserable! St. John’s Wort can interfere with a range of medications though so talk to a practitioner or pharmacist if you are on any prescription meds before starting St. John’s Wort.
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officianalis) is another fantastic anti-viral herb that also promotes nerve health and stress reduction.
- Echinacea supports immune function, is anti-viral, cleanses the blood, and clears the mind.
- When blisters open the tissue beneath becomes susceptible to infection by local skin bacteria, so more broad-spectrum antimicrobial herbs can also help with recovery. Oregano Oil is a potent antimicrobial, as is Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) which is also slightly astringent and drying (good for oozy sores).
Nutritionally, the best option for prevention and treatment is nutrient-dense whole foods, with limited sugar or processed foods. Extra B vitamins to promote nerve health, Vitamin C and Zinc for immune support and wound healing, Vitamin D for immune balance, and probiotics to enhance the microbiome will all prove beneficial in limiting the intensity and duration of shingles.
Shingles prevention comes hand-in-hand with overall health support. Life can throw stressful curve-balls, and we all want to age well into later decades when the risk of shingles increases, so it comes down to continually looking after body and mind to be as powerful and resilient as possible! I wish you ongoing health and no need to explore the treatments available for shingles.
 Tilgner S. Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth. Wise Acres Press, Inc. 1999.