Shingles is a terribly painful outbreak of the varicella zoster virus, a member of the herpes family better known by its initial infection, chicken pox (or varicella). If the infection ever recurs, it’s labeled shingles (or zoster in the medical community). Significant pain and a rash, that often stubbornly and slowly subsides, are the most common tells. Not everyone who gets chicken pox will get shingles, but for those that do, treatment for recovery is both needed and appreciated.
After the initial chicken pox infection, the virus becomes contained but remains dormant within the nerve roots of our nervous system. There the virus might remain dormant forever, or it might trace its way along the nerve to the surface of the body. Doctors diagnose shingles based on a rash that may or may not be present yet, pain and location. The rash can become very red and blister. The pain may start before the lesions ever erupt and can linger long after the lesions clear.
The location of shingles typically helps with the diagnoses. The infection is uniquely one-sided and will follow the path of the nerve from where the shingles originated. For example, the pain and rash of shingles may start on the right side of the back and trace its way around the front side of the chest, never crossing over to the left. When the history and physical presentation lead to the diagnosis of shingles, antiviral medication is typically started to reduce the duration of the outbreak. Early treatment will hopefully lead to less long-term pain.
What nutritional treatments are available to combat shingles?
There are two vitamin treatments that can provide substantial relief to a shingles outbreak. Injected B-12 can be very helpful in preventing the expansion of the problem. B-12 is available over-the-counter as an oral supplement, but oral dosing may not be adequate to fend off a shingles infection. B-12 injections are extremely safe and can be given several days in a row if needed to help the body contain the virus. B-12 shots work much better if done early in the infection, versus after symptoms have existed for several months. Patients who are sensitive to medications may want to ask for preservative-free B-12 shots, which pharmacies can compound specifically to a doctor’s request.
Intravenous vitamin C is another treatment that can be done for more significant infections, or along with B-12 injections. Vitamin C is thought to help boost the immune system. But the body can only absorb so much orally. When vitamin C is given as an IV, concentrations in the blood stream can reach a much higher level. Doctors practicing nutritional medicine have long used vitamin C for tough infections, like mono. Shingles, clinically, seem to respond to IV vitamin C as well. Unfortunately, large studies have not been completed to verify dosing, but the treatment is known to be well-tolerated and worth considering for those suffering from an acute, or long-standing case of shingles, even after lesions have cleared.
On the next page, learn how to strengthen your immune system to prevent shingles.
Strengthening Your Immune System
Ideally, our immune system would be strong enough to prevent the reactivation of the chicken pox virus. For this, we need a healthy diet, adequate rest, limited intake of refined sugar and soft drinks, and a positive mental attitude. Each of these factors plays a key role in keeping a shingles outbreak from starting. Individuals with recurring shingles outbreaks need to evaluate what is keeping them from optimal health. Obtain 3-4 daily servings of vegetables. Allow yourself time for plenty of exercise and rest. Don’t take on more than your body can handle. Usually, patients with a history of shingles can pinpoint a significant stressor that occurred before and perhaps during the outbreak.
Groups prone to shingles include the elderly and those undergoing chemotherapy. Both experience a decline in the natural immune system, which poses some risk for a shingles outbreak. Elderly patients should be proactive in their health habits and supplementation to help prevent shingles, as well as other infections, like the flu. Patients undergoing chemotherapy should discuss various options for maintaining a strong immune system with their physician.
Nutritional supplementation can help strengthen the immune system to decrease, and hopefully eliminate, the possibility of shingles.
- Vitamin C. 1,000-2,000 mg daily.
- Selenium. 100 mcg daily. This mineral is very important for the liver and the immune system.
- Beta-glucan. 200-300 mg daily. A natural immune booster.
- Zinc. 15-20 mg daily.
- Vitamin A. 5,000-10,000 IU daily. Vitamin A is very important for the immune system and the skin. Intake should be watched carefully in those who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
- B-complex. 1-2 capsules daily. This vitamin doesn’t necessarily fight against the virus but may help the body during stress.
- Ginseng. 100 mg or 1 capsule twice a day.
- Licorice. 250-500 mg or 1 capsule twice a day. Both ginseng and licorice can support the body during times of stress. Both are also capable of raising blood pressure, so those with a history of high blood pressure should monitor any changes closely. Licorice reportedly has antiviral properties that could also help the immune system. Patients can take either herb for up to 2 months while the body regains its strength, but should have their blood pressure checked every 1-2 months if the herb needs to be taken long-term.
- Probiotics (Lactobacillus acidophilus). These bugs are the good bacteria that the body needs for healthy bowel function, which is necessary for a good immune system.