Shingles

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Shingles is one of those maladies that can make life very miserable for its victims. Generally it is not considered to be a serious condition, and will usually just run its course without any significant complications. That is…providing you are an otherwise healthy person. This kin of chickenpox can lead to more critical problems for certain people, and become much more than just a painful inconvenience that hassles you for a few weeks. And if you contracted chicken pox as a child, then you are certainly at risk for developoing shingles later on in life.

What is Shingles?

Shingles, officially called herpes zoster, is a disease caused by the same virus that is responsible for chickenpox. The virus is known as varicella-zoster virus (VSV), and is actually an encore infection of the nerves triggered by left over antigens from a previous chickenpox infection that have lain dormant in the body. VSV is a member of the same family of viruses that causes genital herpes and cold sores. Shingles may appear years after the original chickenpox attack. Shingles got its name from the Latin and French words for “belt” or “girdle,” and due to the fact that sores on the skin from shingles outbreaks are often described as “girdle-like.”  The virus usually travels via the nerves to the skin and can cause nerve inflammation and damage as well as extreme pain. Shingles typically affects areas of the face and trunk in a pattern very similar to chickenpox.

Shingles is always preceded by a case of chickenpox, and statistics tell us that approximately 20% of adults who contracted chickenpox as a child will develop shingles later in life. In the United States, the number of annual cases of shingles is estimated to be about 300,000. Most of these individuals are relatively healthy people, but folks with compromised immune systems due to diseases such as diabetes or HIV, or due to chemotherapy or other medications, are at an increased risk for developing shingles. In fact, shingles is quite common in AIDS patients, and is often one of the first indicators that the immune system is breaking down. People of any age, including children, can come down with shingles, but most cases are found in older adults. The older we get, the greater our risk for shingles, with most cases being found in folks 50 or older.

What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?

Shingles infections generally follow the paths of nerves, and may often appear on only one side of the body. The characteristic lesions or blisters typically form in a band that wraps around the back and ends on one side of the chest. Another common pattern affects one side of the face or one eye. The effected nerves are almost always the same ones that were attacked in the original chickenpox outbreak, as the dormant VSV was hiding in these same nerves ever since the chickenpox infection. Whatever virus was not destroyed by the immune system while fighting off the chickenpox holes up in these nerves until something triggers another flare up. The second time around the virus always causes shingles. What causes these flare-ups of VSV remains somewhat of a mystery. However, the most recent research points to triggers such as stressors such as illness, fatigue, or immune system strain.  In the majority of cases, shingles only strikes once, but it occasionally will reoccur at a different location on the body in a small percentage of patients.  Shingles symptoms are similar to those of chickenpox, but shingles usually produces more pain and less itching than chickenpox. Typical symptoms include:

  • Pain, itching, burning, or tingling and numbness (paresthesia) in the effected part of the body. Some patients also experience extreme sensitivity to touch (hyperesthesia), especially in the initial stages of development. At this point, there are often no visible signs of infection.
  • Usually several days after the pain, a reddish rash appears that soon produces fluid-filled blisters that will ooze and crust over.
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Intestinal discomfort

Some patients will experience fatigue and malaise, along with a fever at times, several days before the pain begins. However, this is not always the case. Before the characteristic rash appears, shingles can be difficult to accurately diagnose because the symptoms often mimic those of many other illnesses. Symptoms from shingles typically last from one to four weeks, and the pain and other signs are sometimes continuous, and sometimes intermittent.

Shingles is technically not contagious, in the sense that you cannot “give” another person shingles. However, VSV can be passed to someone else, usually only by direct contact with the open sores that are characteristic of shingles. Through this exposure, those who have never had chickenpox may develop an infection, but it will be chickenpox and not shingles. Anyone who has shingles should be especially careful about exposing certain individuals such as:

  • Immunocompromised people such as HIV patients or diabetics.
  • Newborns
  • Pregnant women (risky for developing fetuses).

All of the above groups can be at increased risk for abnormally dangerous chickenpox infections.

What Are the Possible Complications of Shingles?

The most common complication of shingles is a condition called postherpetic neuralgia. Approximately 20% of shingles patients will develop postherpetic neuralgia, which causes pain in the areas affected by the shingles long after the blisters and rash have dissipated. The reason for this pain is nerve damage caused by the shingles that skews your nervous system’s ability to correctly communicate messages of pain to the brain. Oversensitivity develops which can make even a slight breeze or the weight of a piece of clothing cause intense pain. Postherpetic neuralgia can last for months or years, and the older the patient is, the longer it usually lasts. Statistically, shingles sufferers under 30 stand the greatest chance of never having the prolonged pain associated with postherpetic neuralgia. After the age of 40, about one-third of shingles victims will have extended pain of one month or more. This ratio increases to almost three-quarters for those over 70.

The elderly or folks with additional debilitating conditions tend to suffer more severely from shingles. These individuals may experience bleeding blisters, death of surrounding tissues (necrosis), significant scarring, and tremors or nerve paralysis, which may be temporary or permanent, especially if shingles attacks the nerves that are involved with movement.

If a person is immunocompromised in any way, such as HIV patients or those receiving chemotherapy, shingles can be a much more serious illness than for people with healthy immune systems. AIDS patients will often develop chronic shingles with blisters and ulcers that do not heal in the normal one to four weeks, but stay around indefinitely. Researchers have found that AIDS patients who are lacking specific types of immune system cells called CD4 lymphocytes are particularly susceptible to this chronic type of shingles. Persons with immune system dysfunction are also more likely to experience the spread of VSV infections to other parts of their body, such as the brain (encephalitis), stomach, liver, and lungs. These systemic infections, although rare, can be very critical and even fatal in some cases. Other neurological problems, depending on where the shingles manifests itself, may also occur. These include temporary or permanent blindness (cornea infections), hearing loss, and facial paralysis.  Secondary bacterial infections in areas where shingles has spread can also become a problem.

What Treatments Are Available for Shingles?

Most cases of shingles will clear up on their own with out any intervention, unless the patient has a weakened immune system. However, the sooner you catch shingles and take steps to deal with the symptoms, the better the chance of avoiding complications such as postherpetic neuralgia and secondary or prolonged infections.

Typical allopathic remedies include antiviral medications and pain medications that contribute to faster healing and the reduction of symptoms such as pain and swelling. Corticosteroids are also often prescribed, especially for more critical infected locations such as the eyes. As is the case with any medication, there are undesirable side effects that you must be aware of. It may be wise to forego these drugs, especially the corticosteroids, unless the situation justifies it. This is a decision only you and your health care provider can make.

There are a host of more natural, non-invasive options that you may want to consider while the shingles infection runs its course. These include:

  • Warm baths are helpful to many folks. Try one with colloidal oatmeal to soothe the skin and promote healing. Don’t continue the baths for any longer than necessary because too much bathing can contribute to dry skin which can be a problem for shingles patients especially after the blisters have dried up.
  • Vinegar compresses can also be useful to relieve pain and irritation. A great homemade recipe is composed of ¼ cup of white vinegar in two quarts of tepid (lukewarm) water. Apply the compress to affected areas for about ten minutes twice daily. This will help to dry up the blisters. Discontinue once the blisters are gone.
  • Topical applications of such essential oils as lemon balm and peppermint can also help reduce pain and encourage healing.
  • Keeping the immune system healthy and strong and dealing with stress in proactive ways will often prevent shingles or at least contribute to faster healing of the disease. These can best be accomplished through healthy lifestyle choices such as a quality diet of whole foods including lots of fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of good clean water, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.
  • Supplementation with vitamin B12, lysine (at least 3,000 mg) and B complex, vitamin C, and echinacea can also give the immune system a boost.

I would like to briefly address the issue of the vaccines against shingles and chickenpox that are available and will certainly be offered to you by most mainstream doctors. As is the case with any vaccine, I would be very careful about allowing yourself or your children to be subjected to these injections. The dangers of these vaccines are alarmingly significant, despite what their manufacturers and the FDA claim. They also have not been around long enough to accurately read any unknown long-term effects. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of both shingles and chickenpox cases are uneventful, and resolve themselves in short order without any major complications. Look at the facts and decide for yourselves, and remember that many millions of dollars are being made selling these and other vaccines by using misinformation and scare tactics. This is a prime example of using your health choice freedom, while you still have it, to decide what is best for you and your family.

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