Shingles is a skin rash that is caused by the Varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chicken pox. The zoster family of viruses is part of the herpes family and shingles is also called herpes zoster. Shingles only occurs in individuals who have had chicken pox. After a bout of chicken pox as a child, the virus remains dormant in the body and may resurface later in life in the form of shingles.
While the cause of shingles is known to be a previous case of chicken pox, the reason why it appears later in life is not entirely understood. It is a very prevalent condition, but does not occur in everyone who has had chicken pox in the past. A weakened immune system is thought to be the primary reason why the condition occurs. Those who are most likely to contract shingles include:
- People over the age of sixty. This is thought to be because our immune systems weaken as we age. If you have had chicken pox in the past and are over the age of sixty, you have a 50/50 chance of contracting shingles.
- People with HIV/AIDS.
- Those who are undergoing cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?
Before shingles appears as a rash, feelings ranging from a tingling feeling to intense burning or pain are felt on an isolated area of the skin on one side of the face or trunk. This may be accompanied by a general feeling of malaise or a fever. After a few days, a red, painful rash appears where the burning or tingling feelings occurred. Rather than spreading throughout a wide area, the rash usually appears as a band of small bumps. Shingles gets its unusual name from its appearance as a band: the word is derived from a Latin word, cingulum, which means "belt" or "band."
After the bumps appear, they quickly turn into blisters. The fluid inside the blisters then turns a cloudy colour. Next, the blisters break open and form a crusty surface. The condition is extremely painful and can be aggravated by something as gentle as a breeze.
After about five days, no more blisters appear on the skin, but it takes as long as five weeks for the skin to heal. In some cases, shingles can last much longer. The duration of an outbreak of shingles can be affected by the strength or weakness of the immune system.
Is Shingles Contagious?
Shingles is very contagious. However, it is the Varicella zoster virus that is passed on, not the rash itself. You will not contract shingles if you come in contact with someone who has the rash, but if you have not had chicken pox, you have a high risk of contracting the disease if you come in direct contact with someone with shingles.
Is Shingles a Serious Condition?
Shingles is very painful, but usually passes. However, if it appears around or in the eye, it can cause temporary or permanent blindness and can cause deafness if it spreads into the ear canal. About 10% of shingles sufferers contract a condition known as "postherpetic neuralgia" in which the painful symptoms last long after the rash clears up.
Natural Treatments for Shingles
There are dozens of natural treatments for shingles. A few of those that are widely used and found to be effective include:
- Cayenne Pepper: Cayenne pepper (or red pepper) contains an ingredient called capsiacim. Capsiacim is said to block the nerve signals below the surface of the skin, thus relieving the painful symptoms of shingles. Many over the counter treatments contain this ingredient. For postherpetic neuralgia, mixing enough cayenne pepper powder into any white skin cream until it turns a pale pink and applying it to the affected area has been said to significantly relieve pain. For active shingles, red pepper mixed into aloe vera pulp has been said to work. In both cases, the mixture should be applied two to four times per day.
- Taken orally, St. John's wort is said to have antiviral properties and also can help relieve the depression that so often comes with an outbreak of shingles.
- Many people have found that apple cider vinegar, applied full strength or diluted directly to the affected area is a very effective treatment for shingles.
- It is always advisable to consult a health professional if you believe you have shingles. Topically applied treatments may cause initial pain or discomfort. Try them first on a small area.