With Gerald Quigley Pharmacist & Master Herbalist
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is an infection of nerve fibres produced by the same virus which causes chickenpox. It is marked by the appearance of clusters of painful blisters where the branches of the affected nerves end, most often on one side of the face, or on the side of the trunk. Sometimes it can be found on vaginal tissue and the inside of the mouth. Shingles usually signals a degree of debility and the supportive approach is to use nervous system restoratives and other agents to build up strength where appropriate. A persistent neuralgia is common after the blisters have gone but this will usually respond to herbs for that condition.
Chickenpox & Shingles
Most adults have already contracted chickenpox. This common childhood disease causes a fever and a rash that itches maddeningly, but rarely does any permanent damage. However, once the varicella-zoster virus enters the body and has caused chickenpox, it doesn’t go away. It may lie dormant in the spinal cord and nerve ganglia for years until activated, usually by a weakening (temporary or permanent) of the immune system. Then the varicella-zoster infection spreads to the very ends of the nerves, causing them to send impulses to the brain that are interpreted as severe pain, itching or burning, and rendering the overlying skin much more sensitive than usual. An estimated 90% of people who have had chickenpox are at risk of developing shingles. Those who have never had chickenpox have very little chance of developing shingles because it is not contagious.
An attack of shingles is often preceded by three or four days of chills, fever and aches. There may also be pain in the affected area. Then crops of tiny fluid-filled blisters surrounded by a red rim appear. The affected area becomes excruciatingly painful and sensitive to the touch. Other symptoms can include numbness, fatigue, depression, tingling and shooting pains, swollen and painful lymph nodes, fever and headache. This phase of shingles lasts seven to fourteen days. The blisters eventually form crusty scabs and drop off. Scarring can occur in severe cases.
Why do I have Shingles
The chance of an attack of shingles can be increased by many factors, including stress, cancer, the use of anti-cancer drugs, spinal cord injuries, conditions that suppress the immune system or the use of corticosteroids. However, serious illness is not required to activate the virus. Any type of physical or emotional stress can make one susceptible. Often, something as innocuous as a minor injury or a mild cold can lead to an attack in an otherwise healthy person. In most cases, it is never determined just what the trigger is.
Shingles can appear at any age, but it is most common in people over the age of fifty, when immune function naturally begins to decline as a result of ageing. Most cases of shingles run their course within a few weeks. More severe cases may last longer and require aggressive treatment. In some cases, the pain continues for months, even years, after the blisters have disappeared. This syndrome, called postherpetic neuralgia, is more likely to occur in older people. If shingles develops near the eyes, the cornea may be affected and serious complications may develop. About 20% of persons who get shingles go on to suffer a recurrence of the disease.
A nervous system restorative is a remedy used to restore the nervous system in debility, appearing to have something of a nourishing function. The action of these remedies is generally slow but steady, providing a genuine improvement in tone of the nervous tissues over weeks or months. Notable examples are oats, damiana, St. John’s wort, vervain and ginseng. Some of these are also relaxant, others more stimulating, and these qualities will significantly affect their application.
Neuralgia is the painful inflammation of the nerve fibres, likely to arise anywhere, but notably in the trigeminal nerve of the face, and is marked often by severe pain that is usually made worse by cold and draughts.
How can I ease the pain of Shingles?
Let’s look at some specifics of the herbs mentioned above:
- Oats (Avena sativa) is a sure and effective restorative to the nervous system. It is used for all states of debility, particularly involving the nervous system. In such cases this remedy exerts a gentle but solid restorative action, making substantial contributions to tissue health.
- John’s wort (Hypericum) is a gentle and calming herb whilst restoring nerve function. Internally, it is useful for anxiety states, tension and irritability. Externally it has antiviral action and is a useful treatment for the viral blisters usually evident on the skin near the nerve which is affected.
- Ginseng (Panax) improves the responses of the adrenal cortex in secreting the stress hormones possibly by interacting with receptor sites in the brain, and by variously stimulating and relaxing the central nervous system. In general, ginseng tends to improve the balance of all nervous function. In the short term, it improves stamina, concentration, healing and resistance to stress, vigilance and work efficiency, and especially the support of the body when under attack by stressors.
Sublingual Vitamin B12 is useful for correcting the nutritional imbalance induced by shingles. Natural Vitamin E 500iu each day helps to reduce the pain. A compound antioxidant of vitamins A,C,B, zinc and selenium at a dose of one twice a day (rather than the usual one per day) reduces the oxidative processes, where the production of free radicals can destroy cell membranes within the body. The use of ubiquinol, the ready-to-use form of coenzyme Q10 in shingles also helpful, where the intensity of the infection is directly in proportion to the deficiency of CoQ10. Doses of 150mg twice a day are needed.
Ego Pinetarsol Gel is a soothing gel which can be gently applied to the lesions and left on for five to ten minutes, and then rinsed off with cool water. The anti-inflammatory and pain relieving actions of this gel are invaluable as an additional way of relieving the burning and intense itching which accompanies shingles, and which is sometimes aggravated by the touch of water. The shooting pains experienced by the sufferer can be the most debilitating and depressing effect of this infection.
Other nutrients considered valuable include:
- L-lysine, an anti-viral amino acid taken as 500mg twice a day along with vitamin B6 50mg and vitamin C 100mg for better absorption.
- Vitamin C with bioflavenoids taken as 2000mg four times a day, to boost the immune system and fight the invading virus.
- Vitamin B complex taken as 100mg of each major B vitamin three times a day, to help nerve health.
- Zinc 80mg per day for one week, reducing to 50mg each day, to enhance immunity and protect against infection.
- Calcium and magnesium 1,500mg and 750mg respectively, for nerve function and healing and to combat stress.
- Aged garlic extract to help rebuild the immune system.