Shingles is caused by a virus and affects the skin. It results in a rash in various parts of the body. It usually develops in a band of blisters around one side of the torso. The virus responsible for shingles is the varicella-zoster virus. This virus also causes chicken pox. Once chicken pox occurs, the virus stays in the nerve tissues around the brain and spinal cord in a dormant state. The virus may then get activated after many years. Shingles is a painful condition, but is not life threatening. The risk of developing shingles can be reduced through vaccines. Once shingles develops, early treatment is helpful in restricting the infection and preventing complications.
Symptoms of Shingles
The symptoms of shingles tend to occur in a small area of the body. The common signs and symptoms of shingles include:
- Burning sensation
- Rash that starts to develop some days after the pain
- Blisters filled with fluid. These blisters rupture and then develop crusts.
- Body ache
In some cases the pain caused by shingles may be severe. It may sometimes be mistaken for other conditions such as lung or heart problems. In some people, the pain may occur without any rash. Shingles usually leads to the formation of a rash around the eyes, neck or face. The rash is mainly restricted to one side of the body. It is important to consult your doctor if you notice any symptoms of shingles. Seek medical care quickly in case there is a rash near the eyes, as it could lead to a permanent eye infection. Older individuals and those with a weak immune system should also undergo prompt medical treatment for shingles.
Causes of Shingles
Shingles occurs due to the varicella-zoster virus. It can develop in anyone who has had chickenpox. Once the chickenpox subsides, the virus may remain in the nervous system for several years and then reactivate and lead to shingles. The exact cause of this is unknown. It may be on account of a weak immune system. The condition is more common in people over the age of 50 years, as immunity declines with age. It can also occur in younger people. The main causes of shingles in young adults include underlying medical conditions that weaken the immune system. Shingles is also called herpes zoster because the varicella-zoster virus is part of the group of herpes viruses. Shingles is a contagious condition and an individual affected with the disease can pass it on to anyone who is not immunized against chickenpox. Direct contact with the skin sores can cause the rash to spread to others. An individual, who gets infected, however, will develop chickenpox and not shingles. Chickenpox can be serious in case of newborn babies, pregnant women and those with weak immunity.
There are certain risk factors that can cause a person to develop shingles. These include:
- Age: The disease commonly occurs in older individuals.
- Underlying medical conditions: Diseases such as HIV or cancer can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of shingles.
- Chemotherapy: Treatment for cancer such as chemotherapy and radiation can make an individual vulnerable to shingles.
- Intake of medications: Certain medications such as steroids when used for long periods of time can increase the risk of shingles.
Shingles can lead to the following complications:
The pain due to shingles may sometimes persist even after the blisters go away. This occurs when there is a problem in communication between damaged nerve fibers in the skin and the brain.
Shingles rash around the eye can contribute to severe eye infections and even vision loss.
Damage to the nerves due to shingles can lead to hearing problems, brain inflammation and facial paralysis.
If proper treatment is not given, the blisters may lead to skin infections.
Remedies for Shingles
Shingles cannot be cured, but early treatment through antiviral medication can promote healing and prevent complications. It is important to seek medical treatment for shingles relief, but there are also some home remedies that you can use to reduce pain:
- Cold packs or cool compresses are among the most effective home remedies for shingles. They help to reduce pain due to the skin blisters. Dip a clean cloth in cold water and place it over the blistered skin. You can also place a towel around the affected region and pour cold water over it. A cold compress should be placed on the skin for about 20 minutes. Cold milk can also be used as a compress.
- Several studies including one sponsored by the NHS have found Tai Chi to be an effective behavioral treatment, boosting immunity and helping prevent shingles in older adults.
- Complete bed rest is essential, as this will allow your immune system to regain its strength. It will also encourage proper healing.
- Over-the-counter creams containing steroids or other anti-inflammatory compounds can be applied to reduce inflammation and provide relief, but it is better to consult your doctor before using any of these.
- If the pain is severe try using an over-the-counter pain killer such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. If these do not work, ask your doctor to suggest an effective medication.
- Avoid popping, squeezing or scratching at the blisters, as they will take longer to heal and may lead to scarring. A secondary infection may also develop. The blisters will crust and fall of naturally.
- In order to avoid spreading the disease, avoid contact with people who may be at risk such as children, older people and those who have cancer or have undergone transplants.
- Alternative therapies such as meditation or self-hypnosis are known to be helpful in providing relief from persistent pain.
- Garlic is a beneficial natural shingles treatment as it is antiviral in nature and may help to promote healing in case of shingles. You can add garlic to foods or have garlic capsules twice daily for one week.
- Licorice helps to boost immunity and also possesses antiviral properties. Use a licorice ointment or consume licorice tea. You can also cleanse the affected area with strong licorice tea thrice every day until the rash subsides.
- Diluted calendula or St. Johns wort tinctures can be used to heal shingles rash. You can also brew these herbs in hot water to prepare a tea. Apply the tea to the blisters with the help of a cotton ball.
- You can treat shingles rash with aloe vera gel. Add some leek juice and honey to aloe vera gel and apply to the affected skin.
- The pain and itching of shingles can be relieved by sponging the area with apple cider, vinegar, peppermint tea, goldenseal or vitamin E oil.
- Colloidal oatmeal baths and starch baths can also provide relief from the pain and incessant itch.
- Applying baking soda to the sores may also relieve the itching.
- Ask your doctor about applying Zostrix cream which contains an extract of pepper known as capsaicin. Zostrix may reduce the chances of developing post-herpetic neuralgia. This is the pain that continues even after the rashes have healed. Be warned. Zostrix may actually increase the pain during the first couple of applications.
- Apply Burrows solution to the crust and clean them with a cotton swab. This will help to decrease the oozing.
- Echinacea supplements can help provide a boost to your immune system and help to fight off the infection.
- Calamine lotion helps to soothe the area and relieve the rash. Apply some calamine lotion to the affected area for quick relief from the inflammation and itching.
- Try meditation to help you relax. This is very important as stress can increase your perception of pain.
- Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) devices may help to block pain signals from reaching the brain. Your doctors office will be able to inform you about the availability of TENS devices.
Keep in mind that most of these home remedies are not a substitute for conventional medical treatment, and should only be used as complimentary care to enhance recovery. While some home treatments have been found to be effective, most others are not supported by scientific studies.
Diet for Shingles
There are no studies that we know of that support any claims of dietary cures for shingles. According to some natural health enthusiasts some dietary modifications could help treat shingles, but any such claims should be treated with some amount of skepticism:
- Shingles and Diet: Adding a few beneficial foods to the diet helps in restricting the viral infection and allows the body to heal. Include the following foods in the shingles diet.
- Lysine is an amino acid that may help in preventing infection by the herpes virus. Take a lysine supplement or include foods rich in lysine in your diet. Such foods include legumes, beans, eggs, meat and soybeans.
- Vitamin B12 is known to help in alleviating some of the symptoms of shingles. It is found in foods such as beef, dairy products and shellfish. You can also consult your doctor about taking a vitamin B12 supplement.
- In some cases shingles pain can persist for a long period of time. Vitamin E is helpful in alleviating such pain. You can take a vitamin E supplement or consume foods such as mangoes, tomatoes, spinach and almonds which are high in vitamin E.
- Vitamin C and zinc are also important in shingles nutrition. They help to strengthen the immune system and thus prevent outbreaks of shingles. You can obtain vitamin C from foods such as broccoli, oranges, lemons and peppers. Zinc is found in chicken, oysters, whole grains and legumes.
- Make sure that you drink plenty of water in order to keep your body hydrated. Water also helps to flush out toxins from the body. Refrain from drinking tap water as it contains high levels of chemicals such as chlorine. Clean, bottled water is a good alternative. You can add a dash of lemon to the water to promote better healing.
Suggestions for Shingles
There are two vaccines, one for chicken pox and one for shingles, that can help prevent shingles. The chicken pox vaccine or varicella vaccine is administered in childhood. Adults who have never been affected by chicken pox may also take this vaccine. This will not ensure complete protection from the disease, but it can reduce the severity of the infection and any possible complications. The shingles vaccine or varicella zoster vaccine may be administered to people aged 50 years and above. This vaccine too, does not guarantee protection against shingles but may help to reduce the severity of the infection. The vaccine is only a method of prevention, and cannot be used to treat those already affected with the disease. Since the vaccine consists of a live virus, it must not be administered to individuals with weak immune systems.
For those who have already picked up the infection, it may be a good idea to follow these measures to prevent a spread of the infection:
- Stay away from people who have not had chickenpox, as you may spread the infection to them, especially children and pregnant women.
- Stay away from individuals with a weakened immune function, such as transplant patients or cancer patients.
- Wash all your clothes separately and sterilize them using boiling water. This will prevent contamination of other clothes and linen or any further spread of infection.
- Irwin M, Pike J, Oxman M. Shingles Immunity and Health Functioning in the Elderly: Tai Chi Chih as a Behavioral Treatment. Evid Based Complement Alternate Med. 2004 Dec;1(3):223-232. Epub 2004 Dec 1. PubMed PMID: 15841255; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC538519.
- Block KI, Mead MN. Immune system effects of echinacea, ginseng, and astragalus: a review. Integr Cancer Ther. 2003 Sep;2(3):247-67. Review. PubMed PMID: 15035888.
Shingles - Frequently asked questions