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This formerly rare complication from chickenpox is becoming more common. Here’s what you need to know.

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Recently, a large group of naturopaths was polled, and many noted that in the past five or so years, they have seen a significant increase in shingles cases. This has certainly been true in my practice as well.

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a reappearance of a past infection from the varicella virus. Most commonly known as chickenpox, “wild type” varicella is a generally mild disease that most everyone over age 30 in the U.S. remembers having as a child.

There is no question that shingles, a painful blistering disease, affects people who had chickenpox earlier in life. The virus infects the nervous system and becomes “latent,” which means it never completely goes away. The virus is then reactivated in the form of shingles, with symptoms including burning, itching, and clusters of blisters. An episode typically lasts 7–10 days, but it can take several weeks for the skin to look normal again. Certain things are thought to trigger shingles, including stress, intense sunlight, and toxins such as prescription and/or recreational drugs.

Are Vaccines Effective?

The chickenpox vaccine (Varivax) became available in 1995, but there is simply not enough data to determine whether or not getting the chickenpox vaccine will consistently result in milder cases of chickenpox and fewer occurrences of shingles later in life. Additionally, it is not known if the chickenpox vaccine confers lifelong immunity. On the other hand, children who contract the “wild type” of the chickenpox virus are then immune for life. Whether you opt to vaccinate your children or expose them to the chickenpox virus, do one or the other—getting chickenpox for the first time as an adult is absolutely miserable; the disease is usually not as debilitating in children.

In general, vaccines need to be boostered throughout life, but there is little information about boostering the chickenpox vaccine in adults. When the “wild type” virus was more prevalent, many adults got automatically boostered by being near kids with childhood chickenpox. In fact, one theory as to why we’re seeing more cases of shingles now is that this boostering effect is diminishing as more parents choose to vaccinate their children.

Since 2006, a shingles vaccine (Zostavax) has promised reducing the likelihood of getting shingles, as well as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), a condition of consistent or recurring pain where shingles outbreaks have occurred. The shingles vaccine contains the varicella virus at a concentration at least 14 times that found in Varivax, and is said to be 50 percent effective in lowering the risk of shingles and 70 percent effective in lowering the risk of PHN. We will need at least 12–15 more years of data to know for sure.

Natural Healing 

There are several naturopathic approaches to shingles. In terms of prevention, do your best to manage stress. This generally involves having a little fun every day, as well as drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, having meaningful relationships, and finding some “me” time on a regular basis. And if you live in a low-sun climate and are planning a trip to somewhere sunny, make sure to use sunscreen and avoid sudden, intense sun exposure.

Many naturopathic therapies are very effective for viral infections. Some of my favorites include high-dose vitamin A (50,000 IUs daily for 5 days, but no longer); zinc (50 mg daily for 1–2 weeks); and buffered vitamin C. If the lesions are persistent, or the problem develops into PHN, intravenous vitamin C can lead to rapid improvement of lesions.

Subcutaneous B12 injections (near the blisters) are another naturopathic therapy that has been successful for shingles, particularly when the virus is stress-induced.

Honey, applied topically, has significant antiviral properties and is worth trying. [Editor’s note: For best results, use Manuka honey, a medical-grade honey.

Herbal Antivirals

There are many herbs that are both antiviral and analgesic, including St John’s wort, ashwagandha, and oats. Tinctures can be applied to the skin (mix with castor oil first). Cover the oil-tincture mix with a cloth, and then with a heating pad. This often provides relief after a few applications.

Herbal antivirals can also be taken internally. A blend I like combines licorice, osha, ligusticum, and astragalus.

Helpful Homeopathic Remedies

The major homeopathic remedy for shingles is Rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy). The zoster blisters actually look like a bad case of poison ivy. Rhus tox. is more likely the right remedy for a younger person, who finds relief from some form of movement.

If the patient is very chilly with restless anxiety, exhaustion, and a worsening of symptoms after midnight, then Arsenicum album is likely to help. For a rash that is described as feeling like a burn, Cantharis (Spanish fly) might be a good choice. Another remedy that might be very useful is Iris versicolor (blueflag), which seems to be most applicable to rashes that manifest on the right side of the body. Antimonium tartaricum is known to help resolve chickenpox lesions and may accelerate resolution of herpes zoster. Use 1 tiny tablet (12X and 30C potency) every 4 waking hours for a few days. If symptoms fail to improve within a few days, consult a licensed homeopath.