Shingles on the Rise? How I Cured My Surprise Attack
My Family Discovered My Shingles (And Why You Should Care)
This summer my husband, daughter, and I were swimming in the Gulf of Mexico at Indian Rocks Beach when my daughter said, "Mom, what is that red rash on your back?"
I reached my fingers around and felt a sore, bumpy patch, approximately two inches square, on the left part of the middle of my back.
“Oh my God. I hope it's not shingles,” I said. My husband looked worried; then he pretended to back up a few waves. (I can’t blame the man. Shingles can be contagious. More on that later.)
“It probably isn’t shingles,” I said. “Celeste told me it’s awful, really, really painful. This doesn’t feel too bad. It’s probably just some contact rash from sunscreen or lotion,” I said.
We laughed it off, and my husband and daughter went about making fun of me in our family’s no-mercy way of bashing the (not really) suffering.
I’m not sure why I sensed I had shingles. Perhaps it was some kind of instinct, that little nudge that tells you something before you know you know it. Lately, my exercise endurance was off, like I needed an extra kick to keep going.
I also had a nagging "muscle" ache in my upper-left shoulder region and left rib area (the pathway the virus traveled on me). Also, a close family member told me last year all about her horrible case of shingles.
"It felt like the worst sunburn ever,” Celeste had told me, “crossed with a thousand bee stings and then someone taking a rake across my skin. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t turn over. If I had to live with that pain long-term, I'd have killed myself."
Celeste isn't one to milk attention for physical ailments. She's a healthy, vibrant, chronically positive person who usually downplays illness. But more than a year has passed since her case of shingles, and she still feels twinges of nerve pain—not excruciating, just bothersome reminders of a hellacious few months.
How shingles develops
Shingles showing up in younger people
Have you or anyone you know ever had shingles?
Shingles showing up in unlikely populations
Soon after Celeste was diagnosed, she found out her fifty-something, healthy friend across the hall had shingles on her forehead.
Over time, more friends tell Celeste they had shingles at one time or another, some in their sixties, some in their fifties, some more than once. I learned that week at the beach after a doctor confirmed my case, that my healthy, twenty-something niece had it years ago.
Shingles used to primarily strike the elderly, immune-compromised, or highly stressed. You also had to have chickenpox at some point in your life to be affected (the shingles and chickenpox virus are related, more on that later).
So, I try to figure out why I got this dreadful virus.
I've had chickenpox, but I’m only 47 and for the most part I don’t get sick. If I do, it’s for a day or two—and it’s mild.
So, let’s say stress brought it on.
If that's the case the virus would have reared its ugly head two years before when I had nervous-breakdown, long-term insomnia, and I was trying to please a new editor while running on fumes for sleep... or when my father died or…
But the fact is, this past year my health and stress levels were phenomenal. Stress however, can manifest in some not so obvious ways.
Admittedly, I work my body hard. I stay up very late on weekends and exercise hard six or seven days a week. Two years ago I was diagnosed with mild, stage one adrenal fatigue likely related to lifestyle factors, and when I was 19 I was diagnosed with a benign pituitary disorder.
If the burnout theory about the rise in shingles cases is correct, in some regards I brought shingles on myself (see video below about shingles and burnout).
After Celeste told me she'd had shingles last year, and that several people she knew had had it, as well, I still waved it away. Not going to happen. When she suggested my husband and I seriously consider the shingles vaccine, I thought, thanks for the suggestion, but I'm too young and healthy. Moreover, I'm not a huge fan of just-because vaccines.
The next day at the beach, my unidentified red rash looked better after I applied an over-the-counter steroid cream. (Note: steroid creams are a no-no in shingles treatment.) But as the day wore on, I felt drained, dizzy, and achy—like the flu without the cough.
By mid-afternoon, hours into a blissful day cruising on a friend’s boat, I had to ask him to head back to shore because I didn’t feel well.
After I got back to the condo, I drove to an urgent care center. Dr. Wan looked at my back for about five seconds and said, “You have shingles.” I panicked and was quiet until I could manage a list of questions.
Dr. Wan reassured me that my rash didn’t look too severe and that if I wasn’t feeling a lot of pain then I probably wouldn't.
“Have you seen a lot of cases lately?” I asked.
“Yes, a lot more, and in populations we didn’t used to,” Dr Wan replied.
As a natural health and wellness writer, I’m always interested in discovering health trends and unraveling medical mysteries. I often rattle on to practitioners willing to listen and share their theories. Some listen, some are dismissive. More than a few are out and out hostile that I dare to question medical convention with holistic alternatives.
Dr. Wan was fortunately the open-minded kind of doctor.
(Note: The second-opinion physician I saw when I went home after vacation looked oddly disgusted when I asked her if she saw more cases of shingles lately. See my postscript on what happened.)
Shingles and burnout theory?
Catching and spreading shingles?
You can’t catch shingles.
You can however, catch chickenpox from someone who has active shingles blisters If you never had chickenpox. Chickenpox can be relatively serious in adults.
Shingles occurs when something reawakens the chickenpox virus in your body. If you had chickenpox as a child (varicella zoster virus) the virus reactivates and manifests as shingles (herpes zoster).
Herpes zoster, also known as zoster and shingles, is caused by the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes varicella (chickenpox). Primary infection with VZV causes varicella, and once the illness resolves, the virus remains dormant in the dorsal root ganglia. - Centers for Disease Control
VZV can reactive later in a person’s life and cause a painful, maculopapular rash called herpes zoster. Anyone who has had varicella or gotten varicella vaccine can develop herpes zoster. Most people typically have only one episode of herpes zoster in their lifetime. However, second and even third episodes are possible. - Centers For Disease Control.
The virus spreads when a person has direct contact with the lesions. The lesions are infectious until they dry and crust over. People with active herpes zoster lesions should avoid contact with susceptible people in their household who do not have evidence of VZV immunity and in occupational settings until their lesions dry and crusted. – Centers for Disease Control.
My husband had chickenpox growing up. He decided to get the shingles vaccine after my outbreak. My daughter had the chickenpox vaccine when she was younger so she's likely protected from both shingles (because she never had chickenpox) and chickenpox (because she had the vaccine).
The problem is, vaccinating kids against chickenpox may be causing unintended consequences.
Shingles vaccine: CDC says yes, Dr. Mercola says no.
Did you have chickenpox when you were a child?
Chickenpox vaccine and increase in shingles?
Conventional wisdom is that shingles is most likely to strike the elderly, people with a compromised immune system, or people under extreme stress with compromised immune response.
Dr. Wan disagrees about the stress and poor immune system theory.
“Not true. Everyone experiences stress. Not everyone gets shingles.” he said. “Also, an immune compromised body would show symptoms in more than one system in the body, not just in one nerve band.”
A tell-tale sign of shingles is that the blisters appear on one side of the body in what’s called a dermatome. A dermatome is an area of skin that is largely supplied by a single spinal nerve.
After chickenpox the varicella virus lies dormant near the spine. Something wakens the sleeping giant virus and it manifests as shingles. The virus travels along a nerve pathway until it erupts into blisters on the skin.
“We’re not exactly sure what stirs the virus again but I can tell you it’s not stress or a poor immune system,” Dr Wan said. He wrote me a prescription for Valtrex, an anti-viral medication and sent me on my way.
Chickenpox vaccine theory
A theory gaining ground regarding the rise in shingles is that when we inoculated kids against chickenpox in 1995 (the chickenpox virus and shingles are related) we lost our natural booster against shingles. Once upon a time every time we bumped up against a child recovering from chickenpox we got a free "booster shot.”
In our efforts to eradicate chickenpox (not a serious illness in healthy children) we may have inadvertently increased shingles cases. Tamper too much with Mother Nature’s biological balancing act and she sometimes comes back with a vengeance.
“The concern arises from a hypothesis, backed by some evidence,” writes Andrew Pollack in a 2005 online article published on NY Times Health, "Chickenpox Vaccine Cuts Deaths but Raises Questions on Shingles".
“That exposure to children with chickenpox helps increase adults' immunity to shingles, which is caused by the same virus. With far fewer children contracting chickenpox because of the vaccine, that effect would vanish, and adults, who have by and large, not been vaccinated, would be at greater risk of shingles. We already know the impact the varicella vaccine has had on chickenpox,” writes Pollack.
Within five days of taking the anti-viral medication and religiously following a protocol of selective home remedies (see below under “Treating shingles”) my blisters dried up.
The other symptoms took longer to go away (low energy, itching and dull ache nerve pain). More than a month later and I occasionally have some postherpetic neuralgia (lingering nerve pain in the region the virus traveled) but for the most part my shingles are gone.
The CDC recommends the vaccine for people 60 and over. The vaccine is no guarantee against shingles but if you do get it your symptoms may be less severe. Dr. Mercola strongly advises against the shingles vaccine.
Personally, I steer clear from adult vaccinations (my family doesn’t get the flu shot). I opt instead to amp up our immune system. I do however, look at each situation on a case by case basis.
My husband opted for the shingles vaccine when he returned from the beach. Because he’s under 60 he had to have his doctor call in the order. Several walk-in drugstores with clinics (CVS, Walgreens) can administer the vaccine. Costco offers it cheaper than other clinics).
Other suggestions to prevent shingles:
- Immune support. By conventional and common sense keep your immune system strong, as an "armed guard" against the virus. How to supercharge your immune system.
- Manage stress. This mantra is so overstated these days we don't hear its meaning anymore. In my view, lowering stress isn’t just about physically relaxing, breathing, resting, sleeping and settling the body down. It’s our attitude, point of view and perspective.
Managing stress is about balancing your inner world against the demands of your outer world. It's about learning to give up some non-essential to-do’s. Learn to simplify, to delegate without guilt, to speak up, to enlist your family, to ask for help and to say no without guilt.
Resentment and anger turned in can create excess cortisol (the fight or flight stress hormone that is beneficial in natural doses but should not stay elevated). Excess cortisol contributes to inflammation, the underlying cause for all disease. Indeed, your anger and resentment can kill you.
- Timing to treat shingles. Run don’t walk to your doctor if you suspect shingles. It's better to leave your doctor’s office and find out your red rash is just dermatitis than to find out you have shingles and it’s too late to take meds. The anti-viral has a short window of opportunity (24-72 hours).
Apple cider vinegar
Treating shingles: Conventional and alternative approaches
Fortunately my shingles symptoms were relatively mild. I'm not sure if this was because of my age (47), my good health or that I jumped on the virus immediately across multiple treatment fronts.
My guess? All of the above.
How I treated shingles
I’m sharing my story because shingles seems to be cropping up in unlikely people and because it's a miserable illness.
I don't hide the fact that I'm not a huge fan of using strictly conventional medicine.
Most doctors don’t, won't, can't tell you what holistic practitioners and the “people’s pharmacy” will. In my nearly twenty year experience with natural medicine, I've found holistic healing (treating the whole person rather than just symptoms) works better than mainstream medicine with no or few side effects. In my view however, integrative medicine is sometimes the best approach (combining both conventional and alternative treatments).
Despite being an avid believer in natural medicine, I wasn’t willing to forgo anti-viral medication to treat a condition as painful and potentially serious (long term) as shingles. There are however, several natural anti-viral treatments available for shingles (colloidal silver, wild oregano oil etc.).
Here’s how I treated my shingles:
- Anti-viral medication. I took prescribed anti-viral medicine (Valtrex) three times a day for seven days.
- Ibuprofen for pain. I took 200mg of Advil 3x a day or as needed for nerve pain. My hometown doctor gave me a prescription for 800mg of ibuprofen.
- Rest. I didn't rest as much as I should have at the beach but rest is necessary to repair and strengthen the body's immune response.
- Selective home remedies. Google “shingles” and you’ll find numerous treatments from applying Listerine to active blisters or capsaicin cream to ingesting oregano oil and colloidal silver to attack the virus. Dr. Mercola, my main go-to for natural health advice, recommends applying raw honey to the blisters.
Regardless of whether you follow natural or FDA-approved treatment guidelines, research the pros and cons of each and proceed with caution. I spent two hours researching patient testimonials and based on anecdotal evidence this is what I did:
- Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV). Braggs has been around forever and has countless testimonies about its health benefits.Orally: Mix 2 TSBP with honey and water for taste 3x a day. Prepare to pucker. Be sure you shake the bottle to get the all important “mother” residue at the bottom. Topically. Apply ACV directly to rash areas 3x a day with cotton square (avoid direct contact with blisters that are still active). At night place a non-stick gauze bandage soaked in ACV across blisters. Secure with non-adhesive method (tie with soft cloth). Avoid skin to skin contact with anyone while blisters are active (not dried up).
- Avoided arginine. Avoid foods that contain the amino acid arginine which feeds the virus (This includes the red wine and chocolate I had that weekend at the beach!).
- Added lysine. Conversely, eat foods that contain the amino acid lysine or supplement. I took 1000mg tablets of lysine 3x a day. (My doses are based on shingles testimonials and my instincts, not RDA).
- Vitamin C – 500mg 2-3x a day.
- Odor-free garlic tablets - 1-3x a day
- B12 (I used B12 spray) - 1500mcg 1-2x a day. B12 can be particularly beneficial for postherpetic neuralgia nerve pain.
- I also took my usual list of supplements including an excellent probiotic (Garden of Life) and superb multi-vitamin (Garden of Life RAW), turmeric and a high quality no contamination fish oil.
- I applied aloe vera gel and Benadryl to blisters to ease itching and inflammation. After the itching stopped I applied Mederma daily to avoid scarring (4-6 weeks).
Side note: I had a minor setback a couple weeks ago (nerve pain, run down). I stopped arginine foods and re-started the lysine and ACV. The next day I felt much better. More than a month out and besides an occasional nerve ping at the rash site, I feel great. If I feel the rash site act up or I feel run down, I take a couple drops of Oregenol P73 oregano oil under my tongue (or in water it's very strong) lysine and apple cider vinegar.
Postscript: Frowning doctor disagrees about shingles increase
When I got back from the beach I went to my general practitioner who I see once a year (now my ex-general practitioner). I asked her to take a look at my rash and to confirm that it was shingles.
She entered with her usual frowny face, looked at the rash on the left upper middle side of my back (and the small patches that followed near my front rib and chest line) and said in a monotone voice,
“Yes, it's shingles, and you’re not contagious anymore.”
"I didn’t think so," I said. "My blisters dried up in five days. I took the meds, drank apple cider vinegar and dabbed it on the rash for days. I also took lysine tablets which I think helped.” Gushing, excited.
Doc is silent. Frown. Stare.
Work with me here, lady. This is positive stuff. Patient giddy with good news.
I figured because Dr. Frown is a DO and not an MD she was at least open to hearing me mention alternative treatments, even though she can't endorse any of them. She might have managed a moment of friendly bedside manner and said, “Well, Laura that’s great, glad the blisters dried up so quickly for you.”
Nah, she looked like she’d sucked a lemon.
Minutes before she came in I'd mentioned to the nurse what I’d read about the rise in shingles and the chickenpox vaccine in 1995. Maybe the nurse told this to my doctor. Perhaps my doctor was just used to my polite, but inquisitive natural health comments and had had enough of my "quackery" in the face of real medical school medicine.
I’ve only seen her four or five times in five years but every time she seemed annoyed by my added questions. I just never got around to finding someone else.
Apparently a glutton for punishment I asked her, “Have you seen more cases of shingles lately?”
“No, and why did you ask?” she said. “I see the same number of cases as I’ve always seen.”
I realized Dr. Frown decided shingles's theories were not in her Ideas To Consider That Day and I was too tired to explain what I'd read so I mentally retreated.
“Uh no reason, just curious," I said. "I’ve heard about a few people who had it who I didn’t expect to get shingles.”
“Well, we’ve seen the same number of cases. Nothing has changed.”
I decided she needed to defrost a little before I left. As I walked out I told her I appreciated that she was the first doctor to ever check me for vitamin D deficiency (she really was) and that I appreciated her proactive approach. Because of her I said, I wrote several articles on vitamin D.
She looked up and I think I saw a few attitude icicles drop. When I got lost like I always do in doctor's offices looking for the exit sign in the rat maze, she smiled full on, and pointed.
Maybe that’s the secret to getting some doctors to listen to you, kiss their a... first, and watch their ears open up.
Better yet, find a new doctor.
Because if you give basic respect to your physician and that isn't enough for her to hear you out, save your prized energy and find a partner for your health, not a dictator.
Whether shingles is on the rise in younger populations—and if so, why—is still up for debate. Regardless, the misery of shingles is a compelling enough reason to bolster your immune system against the Varicella virus.
If you do happen to wake the sleeping chickenpox virus and notice the tell-tale rash, head to your doctor immediately. Act quickly with a variety of treatment options, and you may decrease the severity of symptoms, shorten the duration of your case, and avoid the dreaded postherpetic neuralgia.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Laura