Shingles - a Painful Rash
What is it?
Shingles is a painful rash of red spots that spreads over various areas of the skin, primarily around the head or trunk. It is a viral infection that travels down nerve pathways and affects the nerve endings in the skin.
Who gets it?
This distressing condition is suffered by 1 in 5 adults, but those over 50 years old are more likely to be affected.
What causes it?
It is caused by the herpes varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. If you have had chickenpox in the past, you are likely to be immune to shingles, but this may not be the case if your immune system has been weakened recently. Things that weaken the immune system include other infections, stress, being run down from poor diet, lack of sleep or heavy physical work, recreational or medicinal drugs, or immune diseases.
The chickenpox virus lies dormant at the top of the nerve, but activation by stress, poor diet, or drugs may cause it to reactivate, travel down to the nerve ending in the skin, and cause a painful rash in the area served by that nerve.
You can't catch shingles from someone who has shingles, nor can you catch it from someone who has chickenpox. You can catch chickenpox from someone who has shingles, though, and later on you may get shingles if this chickenpox virus reactivates.
What will happen if I get it?
Characteristically, a rash of red spots will appear after a period of increasing tenderness in the area of skin about to be affected. These spots develop into fluid-filled blisters (full of the chickenpox virus), which burst to become ulcers and then dry out into crusts. Until the rash dies down, the whole area affected is likely to be extremely painful, with even a gentle touch causing tremendous discomfort. You may experience fever, headache and enlarged lymph glands, as well as the skin symptoms. As the pain can be so bad, you may even experience mild depression as a result of the infection.
If the infection is in the nerves around the eye, you may get an eye infection that is not only excessively painful but affects your vision, so consult your doctor immediately if you think you have an attack of shingles.
Some people experience nerve pain that doesn't disappear when the rash goes. This is called postherpatic neuralgia, and is caused by damage to the nerves that have been infected with the virus.
What can I do about it?
Keep any area affected by shingles immaculately clean, as secondary bacterial infection of the blisters can cause extra pain and make the infection last longer.
Consulting your doctor as soon as you can is a good idea, as there are antiviral medications that can reduce the severity of the attack. This is particularly important if you have a weak immune system or are especially run down. Anti-inflammatory painkillers may be prescribed, although these can have side effects.
A herbal remedy that doesn't cause any side effects is St John' Wort Oil. This is applied externally to the areas affected by the infection, and it soothes the nerve pain very effectively. It can be applied as often as necessary and there are no contraindications.
If you are not taking any medication, it is also possible to take St John's Wort internally in the form of Hypericum tincture. This has the double benefit of reducing nerve pain and attacking the virus. St John's Wort is well known for being an antidepressant (which is additionally helpful if the condition has been getting you down!), but it is less well recognised that it has an antiviral action that makes it extremely helpful in he relief of shingles.
If you are prone to shingles, or have had a bad attack and wish to reduce the possibility of it recurring, avoid nuts and chocolate, which contain an amino acid (L-arginine) that feeds the chickenpox virus. Instead, take a supplement of the amino acid L-lysine, which counteracts L-arginine. It is helpful if you keep your intake of foods containing vitamin C high, as this is excellent for your immune system.
If you feel that your immune system needs some support, take a maintenance dose of fresh Echinacea (15 drops, once or twice daily) for several months until you feel better.