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Natural Remedies for Shingles

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Updated September 13, 2013

What are Shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have had chickenpox, the virus becomes dormant in your nerve tissue, but it can be reactivated years later as shingles. It is more common in adults between the ages of 60 and 80 and those with weakened immune systems.

Natural Remedies for Shingles

Although natural remedies are promoted for shingles, it is important that you consult a doctor as soon as possible if you think you have shingles, in order to shorten the infection and reduce the risk of complications. This is especially important if the rash appears near the eye area, which can cause temporary or permanent loss of vision.

Although no natural remedies have yet been proven to be effective for shingles, these are some that are being researched or have been used traditionally.

1) Proteolytic Enzymes

Proteolytic enzymes are enzymes that are produced naturally by the pancreas to help digest protein we eat.

They are also found in certain foods, such as papaya and pineapple. Supplements derived from papaya (called papain), pineapple (called bromelain), and from animal pancreas can be found online, in health food stores, and in some grocery and drug stores. They are often marketed as digestive enzyme supplements.

In a German study, 96 people with shingles took proteolytic enzymes for 14 days and another 96 people with shingles took acyclovir, a standard antiviral medication. Both groups experienced similar pain relief and skin improvement, with the exception of skin redness, which showed greater improvement with the acyclovir treatment. The group taking proteolytic enzymes had significantly fewer side effects.

Side effects of proteolytic enzymes may include digestive upset and allergic reactions. People with allergies to pineapple or papaya should avoid supplements derived from those fruit.

Proteolytic enzymes, particularly bromelain and papain, should not be taken with warfarin (Coumadin), aspirin, or other "blood-thinning" medications as it may increase the effect of the drug. The proteolytic enzyme pancreatin may interfere with the absorption of the vitamin folate.

2) Tai Chi

There is preliminary evidence suggesting that tai chi may improve immune function and health in older adults at risk for shingles.

In one study, 36 men and women, aged 60 and over, took a 15 week program of Tai Chi Chih (three 45 minute classes per week) or a wait list control. After 15 weeks, there was an increase in varicella zoster virus-specific immunity and health functioning in people taking Tai Chi Chih. Tai Chi Chih is just one form of the Chinese martial art.

More on Tai Chi for health.

3) Capsaicin Cream

Although you may not have heard of capsaicin (pronounced cap-SAY-sin) before, if you've ever eaten a chili pepper and felt your mouth burn, you know exactly what capsaicin does. Capsaicin is the active ingredient in chili peppers and is sometimes used for postherpetic neuralgia.

In one study, people used either capsaicin cream or a placebo cream. After six weeks, almost 80 percent of people who used the capsaicin cream had significantly greater pain relief compared to people who used the placebo cream.

When it is applied to the skin, capsaicin has been found to deplete substance P--a neurochemical that transmits pain--resulting in an analgesic effect. Capsaicin cream is also called capsicum cream. It is available in drug stores, health food stores, and online. A typical dosage is 0.025% capsaicin cream applied two to four times a day. The most common side effect is a stinging or burning sensation in the area. The benefit may take several weeks to develop.

If possible, wear disposable gloves (available at drugstores) before applying the cream. Be careful not to touch the eye area or any areas of broken or sensitive skin. A tube or jar of capsaicin cream typically costs between $8 and $25.

To learn more about capsaicin cream, read Capsaicin Cream: What You Need to Know.

Symptoms:

  • Pain, tingling, burning, itching, or numbness in a certain area of the body
  • Red rash with fluid-filled blisters that start within a week after the pain. The rash typically occurs on one side of your chest. It can also occur on one side of the face or neck.
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache

After the blisters dry up, usually in one to two weeks, pain can persist. Sometimes, shingles can lead to a condition called postherpetic neuralgia, in which sharp, stabbing pain lasts months to years after the rash has disappeared.

Additional Tips

  • The affected area should always be kept clean
  • Applying wet, cool compresses may reduce pain
  • Be sure to get plenty of rest

Other Natural Remedies

Sources

Bernstein JE, Korman NJ, Bickers DR, Dahl MV, Millikan LE. Topical capsaicin treatment of chronic postherpetic neuralgia. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2 Pt 1 (1989): 265-270.

Billigmann P. [Enzyme therapy--an alternative in treatment of herpes zoster. A controlled study of 192 patients] Fortschr Med. 113.4 (1995): 43-48.

Davies SJ, Harding LM, Baranowski AP. A novel treatment of postherpetic neuralgia using peppermint oil. Clin J Pain. 18.3 (2002): 200-202.

Greenway FL, Frome BM, Engels TM 3rd, McLellan A. Temporary relief of postherpetic neuralgia pain with topical geranium oil. Am J Med. 115.7 (2003): 586-587.

Irwin MR, Pike JL, Cole JC, Oxman MN. Effects of a behavioral intervention, Tai Chi Chih, on varicella-zoster virus specific immunity and health functioning in older adults. Psychosom Med. 65.5 (2003): 824-830.

Volmink J, Lancaster T, Gray S, Silagy C. Treatments for postherpetic neuralgia--a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Fam Pract. 13.1 (1996):84-91.

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