What is Shingles?
Does a shingles diagnosis sound harmless to you? If it does, you’re incorrect. In fact, shingles is from the same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus. Shingles affects a single nerve and then it creates a localized rash in the same area. As harmless as shingles may sound, it is actually extremely painful. Even worse, several million people in the United States feel its effects every year. One in three adults will develop shingles in their lifetime. However, it is impossible to contract it unless the patient has had chickenpox. Individuals with the varicella-zoster virus may find that it stays dormant for years and it is prone to reactivation. It is most common in people over the age of 50 and the risk of contracting it increases with age. However, children can also develop shingles.
The worst part about shingles is the pain. Although it may appear as a rash on the surface, it is a rash covered by red and blistered skin. The infection to the nerves beneath the skin is extremely painful. Patients report discomfort, itchiness and nerve pain. There is absolutely no way to contract shingles from another person, there is also no cure and no way to remove the virus from the body. However, vaccinations prevent both chickenpox and shingles. The CDC recommends a vaccine to prevent the condition and its possible complications. It is important to be educated about shingles. Continue reading to learn more about its symptoms, causes, natural remedies and supplements for shingles that may help.
Symptoms of Shingles
Usually, a shingles episode lasts between three and five weeks. The first sign is usually a burning pain, numbness or itching. After a few days of pain, the rash appears, turns into blisters filled with fluid and then dry up. After a few more weeks, the scabs disappear. A shingles episode can last anywhere from two to four weeks (x).
Those who are unfamiliar with shingles may think that the red rash is the worst part, but it pales in comparison to the pain. The red rash typically shows up a few days after the pain begins. But for some patients, the rash may never appear, which makes it difficult to diagnose. Usually the rash develops on either the left or right side of the torso, but it may also show up near the eyes — ocular shingles — mouth or ears. It is especially important to contact a doctor if shingles affects the area near the eyes (x).
As if the pain is not enough, the itching is agitating. Because the skin changes with the rash and blisters, it may become extremely itchy. Even the gentlest touch can cause pain or itching. Minor scarring may appear from the combination of rash, blisters and itching, but the full skin symptoms do not subside for up to four weeks (x).
Rash and Fluid-Filled Blisters
A few days after the patient begins to feel pain, they develop a rash on the skin, usually on either the right or left side of the body. It may also develop on the face or spread to other areas of the body and start to look like chickenpox (x).
After the rash, the patient will develop fluid-filled blisters. These blisters can appear in conjunction with the rash and during this stage, blisters can last up to five days. The blisters may appear separately as a single band of lesions usually around the torso on the left or right side. These blisters are itchy and typically break open and crust over. One defining characteristic of shingles is that the blisters will most likely show up in defined “bands,” not as a widespread red rash around the body because the condition affects a single nerve. Once again, if a patient begins to develop ocular shingles, it’s important to contact a physician as soon as possible (x, x).
Similar to other infections, a fever is another common symptom of shingles as a result of the body’s defense system. A fever may be the number one way to ward off other infections, but it is challenging to endure. The patient may develop a fever at any point during a shingles episode (x).
Other symptoms of shingles include headache, fatigue, chills, stomach pain and sensitivity to light (x, x). Although it is rare, a patient may have the shingles virus without the tell-tale rash or blisters, called zoster sine herpete (ZSH). However, the patient still feels itching, burning and numbness sensations in certain areas on the body. Because the patient does not have a rash and shingles symptoms are similar to other conditions, they may mistake shingles for something else, like herpes simplex, impetigo, contact dermatitis or dermatitis herpetiformis. This can make it difficult to diagnose and usually the doctor performs a lab test to detect the virus (x).
Shingles is anything but ordinary. In rare cases, shingles can lead to pneumonia, pigment loss in the skin and even death in those with an impaired immune system, usually older patients. When shingles impacts the face, it may include other complications such as (x):
- Difficulty moving the face and eyes
- Hearing loss
- Drooping eyelids
- Loss of taste
If the condition affects the eyes, it can lead to permanent eye damage and vision loss. It can cause glaucoma, corneal ulcers and scarring. The patient may also develop acute retinal necrosis, which can result in blindness (x).
The risk does not stop there. In even more rare cases, shingles can lead to other complications and long-lasting conditions such as (x):
- Ramsay Hunt Syndrome (x)
- Inflammation in the spinal cord (transverse myelitis)
- Inflammation in the brain (encephalitis)
- Skin infections
- Peripheral motor neuropathy (x)
- Postherpetic neuralgia (x)
Causes of Shingles
The varicella-zoster (chickenpox) virus is a type of herpes. Although experts know which virus causes shingles, research has not identified exactly why the virus reactivates to cause shingles. To contract shingles, the patient must have had chickenpox. After the virus causes chickenpox, it remains dormant in the body, reactivating and waking from hibernation to travel to the nerves. Then the virus manifests in shingles.
It spreads through contact with the fluid inside the rashes. However, a patient cannot get it from someone with chickenpox (x). Not everyone with chickenpox is certain to contract shingles. Some individuals may go on and never experience shingles, while others may experience repeated episodes. Rather, there are several factors that increase the risk (x, x).
Shingles will most commonly occur in adulthood and especially older adults age 50 and older. Experiencing shingles in late adulthood is especially risky. There are under 100 reported deaths per year due to shingles, particularly in older immuno-compromised adults (x, x).
Impaired Immune System
Patients with a compromised immune system may also develop shingles, whether they have an injury or suffer from an illness. Medical conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS can weaken the immune system and so can their treatments. Patients who have had a recent organ transplant often take medication to keep the body from rejecting the new organ, which can impact the immune system as well (x).
Treatment for Shingles
Symptoms usually go away on their own after a few weeks. However, dermatologists still strongly recommend treatment for shingles to reduce pain and prevent infection or any other possible complications. For a lot of patients, the symptoms last much longer, for months or even years (x).
To encourage prompt healing, a dermatologist may prescribe antiviral medications such as acyclovir or valacyclovir to encourage healing. For severe pain, the patient may need an injection with a numbing agent or a corticosteroid. The doctor may also prescribe antidepressants or anticonvulsants in low dosages (x, x).
For more natural remedies, the patient can also use wet compresses, calamine lotion or oatmeal baths to relieve itching and discomfort (x).
Shingles doesn’t usually require hospitalization, but it can cause serious complications. The best way to prevent shingles and its complications is to get vaccinated. There are two licensed vaccines in the U.S., Shingrix and Zostavax (x).
Supplements for Shingles Symptoms & Immune Health
Although there is no cure for shingles, there are several natural remedies and supplements that may ease the symptoms and boost the immune system so that the body can fight off disease. Always consult with a physician before trying any supplements. They are not a medical treatment, but they can provide health benefits combined with other treatment methods.
One natural potential remedy for shingles is garlic. Garlic is an antiviral, which means it can help the body fight against viruses, bacteria and infections. As a dietary supplement, take garlic extract powder in doses of 650 mg (¼ tsp) twice a day with meals, unless a physician advises a different dosage.
This is yet another natural supplement that may help patients reduce the risk of contracting shingles virus. Like Vitamin C, the body needs zinc to boost the body’s immune system. Increasing the amount of zinc in your diet can help strengthen the immune system. However, zinc supplements are another option to get a consistent daily dosage. The recommended dosage for zinc gluconate powder is 225 to 450 mg daily, or following a doctor’s instructions.
We all know and love Vitamin C, commonly known for its ability to fight off the common cold and influenza virus. Vitamin C has properties that help strengthen the body’s immune system and boost white blood cells that fight illness. It is a powerful antioxidant that combats oxidative damage that causes disease. As a supplement, take Ascorbic Acid / Vitamin C powder in 1,000 mg (¼ tsp) doses every day. Follow a doctor’s instructions for safety and dosage.
Despite its name, lemon balm does not come from lemons. Instead, it is a natural herb in the mint family. It has antiviral, antibacterial and antiparasitic properties. Lemon balm is an old remedy for painful period cramps because it relaxes muscles to reduce pain, which may help patients with shingles pain. It can also help fight damage from free radicals in the body with its antioxidant properties. It’s available as a tea or a topical for sores (x). However, supplements are a great way to get a consistent dosage. The recommended dosage for lemon balm extract powder is 1,000 mg (⅓ tsp) daily. Consult a doctor before taking the supplement.
The Bottom Line
Shingles is the chickenpox’s older sibling that affects millions of people in the United States every year. Patients only contract shingles if they have already had the chickenpox because both conditions are caused by the same virus, varicella-zoster. The virus remains dormant in the body after chickenpox disappears and it may reactivate and cause shingles.
People over the age of 50 are the most at risk, as well as patients with compromised immune systems from illness, injury or medications. Shingles causes severe pain and discomfort, followed by a red rash, blisters, itching and even fever. Usually it is not severe, but in rare cases it can have permanent, damaging effects such as pneumonia, encephalitis and even death. Dermatologists may prescribe treatment for pain and antiviral medication to help the rash heal.
There are also natural remedies, such as calamine lotion or oatmeal baths. Supplements are also available as a potential treatment for skin health and immune system support — Vitamin C, zinc, garlic or lemon balm. However, consult a physician before starting a supplement regimen. They are not a replacement for medical treatment, although they provide health benefits.