Shingles is a painful, blistering rash that generally emerges on one side of your face or body. Patients also experience fever, fatigue, and nausea.
It is caused by the varicella-zoster, the virus that causes chickenpox. Although you typically recover from chickenpox in a couple of weeks, the virus remains dormant in tissue near your brain and spinal cord for the remainder of your life. Years later, the virus can reactivate and cause shingles.
When you are initially exposed to the varicella-zoster virus, you get chickenpox. However, your body fights the virus, and you develop immunity, and the second round of chickenpox is rare. But the virus is still in your body. Your immune system keeps it in check.
The broadest risk factor for the virus is the age which is associated with a weakened immune system. In addition to a natural decline in the strength of their immune system, older people often have the following risk factors:
- Autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
- Prescriptions for Immunosuppressant treatments such as medications like long-term corticosteroids and anti-inflammatory corticosteroids
- Necessary Immunosuppressants taken after bone marrow transplants and organ transplants
- Stress is also considered a risk factor, although studies on the connection between stress and the virus have been inconclusive
The infection can be spread to people who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine through direct contact with the blisters’ liquid. People with a rash are no longer contagious once the blisters have crusted over. The risk of spreading the disease can also be virtually eliminated if the rash is kept covered.
There are risks of complications. The most common is postherpetic neuralgia which causes burning and itching for months after the rash has gone away.
- If you develop a rash on your forehead near your eyes, you should contact your health care provider. The virus can cause Glaucoma or pressure in the eyes, resulting in a permanent loss of vision.
- A health care provider should also treat a rash around your ears to avoid Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, leading to problems with balance, earaches, hearing loss, and tinnitus.
Although pharmacies have shelves of products advertised as the most effective shingles cream, there is no cure. Generally, the infection runs its course after six to eight weeks. Antiviral medication may help shorten the length of an episode and ease symptoms. The following home and natural remedies may also help:
Cool bathes and showers
Daily showers and bathes reduce the risk of the infection spreading. A cool shower can soothe skin and reduce itching and the pain from blisters. A lukewarm 15-minute bath that contains 1 to 2 cups of cornstarch or colloidal oatmeal can also ease pain and itching. Avoid hot water, which increases blood flow and can potentially worsen blisters.
A cool, moist compress applied to the rash can also reduce pain and itching.
Baking soda and cornstarch paste
A paste made of 2 parts cornstarch or baking soda and one part water applied to the rash for 15 minutes can ease itching. This can be done several times a day.
Boosting your immune system can prevent the rash from spreading to other parts of your body. The following foods with vitamins A, B-12, C, and E and the amino acid Lysine are foods believed to promote healing:
- orange and yellow fruits
- leafy green vegetables
- red meat
- wild-caught fish
- whole grains
You should avoid the following foods:
- food and juices with high amounts of sugar
- arginine-rich foods (including chocolate, gelatin, and nuts)
- refined carbohydrates
- foods with high amounts of saturated fats
Eating too much of these foods can weaken the immune system and potentially prolong an episode. Foods with high levels of arginine can even cause the virus to reproduce.
Herbal and homeopathic treatments
Although there is no evidence that alternative herbal and homeopathic treatments work, and even though they are unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there are reports of success treating pain and other symptoms with the following alternative remedies:
- Lemon balm
- Oregano oil
- Green tea
- St. John’s wort
People should always discuss using these treatments with their doctors.
Shingles Cream and topical treatments
While shingles creams won’t heal the blistering rash, some topical treatments are used to ease pain and other symptoms. Lotions and creams should be used lightly. Heavy applications could prevent blisters from drying out.
Lotions that contain capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers that has an anti-inflammatory effect, are used to reduce pain. Calamine lotion is used to soothe skin and dry out blisters. Other over-the-counter lotions claim to be the most effective shingles cream.
The CDC recommends that people 50 and older get vaccinated with Shingex, a vaccine f that has been available since 2017 and is said to be 97 percent effective in protecting people from the virus and complications.