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Last updated August 14, 2018, originally published May 233, 2009

By Susan M. Callahan, Health Editor
and Featured Columnist

[Health and fitness articles are reviewed by our team of Doctors and
Registered Nurses, Certified fitness trainers and other members of
our Editorial team.]

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the same virus which
causes chicken pox, the varicella zoster virus.  In reports
on shingles, the disease is often simply referred to as
"zoster" or "herpes zoster" because it belongs in the same
family of diseases as herpes, all of which cause eruptions
on the skin, after the virus travels along the path of a

So, it is accurate to refer to shingles as a disease of the
nerves.  About 33% of all adults in the US will at some
point develop shingles, according to the Centers for
Disease Control. This is similar to the risk of infection in
other developed countries, such as Canada and the UK,
where the risk for shingles ranges from 28% to 30%,
according to a 2013 study from the University of
Gothenburg in Sweden.

Women are 11% more likely to develop shingles than men,
and whites are 10 more likely than non-whites to develop
the disease.

Symptoms of shingles are pain or tingling along a path of
nerves from the bottom of the thigh, wrapping around the
body or from the back wrapping around the body.

Although this is the most common path of shingles, the
path of sores and outbreaks can appear elsewhere on your
body from your arms, core of your body and even your

Sores appear at the ends of the path of nerves. The sores
can range in appearance from red bumps that look like a
common rash to sores, which look like cancker sores or
cold sores.

But unlike the herpes viruses which cause cold sores and
genital herpes, shingles is not a sexually transmitted
disease.  In fact, you cannot transmit shingles to another
person.  Shingles itself is not contagious.

However, if you have shingles, and you have an outbreak,
you can give another person chicken pox if they come into
contact with the fluids from the sores of shingles.  

The reason you cannot give them shingles is that shingles is
secondary form of the disease which is only expressed
after a person has already been exposed to chicken pox.

You either had to have had chicken pox, full blown, or at
least have been exposed to chicken pox, to have shingles
later in life. Because a shingles sore can spread chicken
pox, make sure the sores are covered appropriately if you
are sleeping with a spouse or partner who has not had
chicken pox.

Unfortunately, we have all been exposed. The
Centers for
Disease Control estimates that 98% of all Americans have
been exposed to the virus that causes shingles.

Shingles is far more common than heart disease, stroke, or
diabetes. In the  United States, according to the CDC,
one in three people will develop shingles at some point
during their lifetimes.  One in three. That means that if you
have 2 friends, one of the three of you will likely develop
shingles. According to the CDC, one million new cases of
shingles are diagnosed every year.
[Update: There is some
evidence that having
uncontrolled diabetes increases your
risk for outbreaks of herpes zoster
, the virus that causes

Why does shingles express itself so late in life? Why does
the virus which gives us chicken pox hide out in our bodies
for many decades and only appear after we reach middle
age or later?  It is true that the highest incidence of
shingles occurs among those over 50, and especially
prevalent among those between the ages of 60 and 69.

The theories for the re-emergence of shingles later in life

1. Age.  Shingles affects those over 50, and especially those
between the ages of 60 and 69. Scientists believe that as
we age, so do our immune systems, leaving us vulnerable
to the second attack by the chicken pox virus.

2. Depressed Immune Systems.  All diseases and
treatments that depress the immune system --- cancer,
radiation, even HIV--can also leave us more vulnerable to

3.  Stress.  Stress and stressful events often precede the
emergence of shingles, bringing the virus out of hiding. My
mother-in-law developed shingles after the death of her
oldest son.  He died on a Tuesday, and she started having
symptoms 10 days later. I had an attack of shingles after a
rock-climbing incident which left me hanging for a
terrifying 60 seconds.

Other sufferers of shingles report that they developed the
disease after the death of a spouse, deaths of close friends
and relatives, loss of jobs or income, relocation of primary
residences and tragedies involving their children or

This connection between stress and shingles mirrors the
patterns of cold sores, which often appear after stressful
events (onset of menstrual cycles and related
pre-menstrual stress, arguments, disruptions in
relationships or job stress).

Treatments for Shingles

Shingles eventually runs its course, in most cases within
10-14 days.

However, shingles can be a dangerous disease. If the virus
enters the eyes, it can cause blindness.   Shingles is also
quite painful in many cases.  

Post-herpetic neuralgia(PHN) is the pain that remains after
the development of shingles. Variously described as a
constant itching, irritation, stabbing, shock-like, burning or
deep pain, PHN can disrupt all normal life functions.  In
fact, it has been described as one of the deepest pains a
human can feel, second only to child birth in intensity for
many people.  So, see your doctor for pain management if
you develop shingles.  

Since shingles causes nerve pain, be careful about using
aspirin, as it can sometimes make nerve pain worse. Many
doctors will recommend that you use paracetamol (Tylenol)
or an equivalent pain medication instead.

Natural Home Remedies to Manage Shingles Pain and

Many sufferers report that aloe vera gel mixed with
cayenne pepper or the direct application of apple cider
vinegar helps to stop the pain of shingles and speed the
healing of the blisters. Witch hazel also helps the healing of
the blisters. As for the aloe/cayenne pepper mix, it sounds
as if it should make the pain worse but it seems to stop the
pain.  Try to find the highest concentration of aloe gel, or
better yet, use aloe directly from the plant itself for best
results.  Add a 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper for every
cup of aloe gel or pure aloe.

In 2008, the FDA approved a vaccine for shingles.  The
vaccine is really a form of a chicken pox vaccine.  The CDC
recommends that all Americans over age 60 receive the
Zostavax vaccine.  The
CDC's recommendation for the
Zostavax vaccine only applies to those over 60, even
though the risk for shingles begins to rise after age 50,
simply because the clinical trials for the drug involved
people over 60.

Topical lidocaine has also been reported to help greatly
with shingles pain but this requires a doctor's prescription.  
As for over-the-counter pain relief, Motrin helps many
people with shingles pain.

In some cases of shingles, some women have reported that
they have developed
nodules in your vaginal area.

Natural Remedies, Foods  and Diets That Help Shingles

Because shingles is caused by a  virus, there is no natural
"cure". You must receive anti-viral medication to directly
attack the disease.

However, there are natural foods that help to support the
health of your nerves and immune system and natural
approaches to pain management that may help shingles.

First, all nerves cells need oil to function properly. Fish oil,
omega-3 fatty acids, have been found in numerous studies
to facilitate the healing of nervous conditions.

According to the
University of Maryland Medical Center, all
healthy nerve cells contain high concentrations of omega-3
fatty acids (consisting ofeicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and  alpha-linolenic acid
(ALA)). Diets deficient in any of the 3 omega-3 fatty acids
have been linked with increased risk of nervous conditions
and depression.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and nuts.   EPA and
DHA are found in various cold water fish and fish plants.
The highest concentrations are found in cold water salmon
but other cold water fish are also rich in EPA and DHA
including halibut, sardines, mackarel, herring and tuna and
in water plants such as kroll and algae. ALA is found in nuts
and seeds and beans oils such as walnuts, flaxseeds,
flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil (canola oil), pumpkin seeds,
pumpkin oil, soybeans, soybean oil,  purslane, and perilla
seed oil. For those of you who prefer taking fish oil
supplements, new research has raised the possibility that
krill oil may be an even better source of omega-3 fatty
acids than standard fish oil.

A Mediterrean-style diet, rich in omega-3 fatty acids (also
called polyunsaturated fatty acids), whole grains and leafy
vegetables is the best defense you can have against
diseases that attack your nerves such as shingles.

Here is a weekly meal plan for helping to improve the
health of your nerve cells:

1. Lox on whole grain toast for breakfast. Add  a fish oil
supplement with chamomile tea.

2.Snack: 3 walnut halves.

3. Salmon with a plate of green vegetables for lunch.

4. Snack: 3 walnut halves.

5. Sardines in tomato sauce over a plate of spinach pasta
for dinner.

6. Once a day, but not within 2 hours of bedtime and
substituting Splenda or stevia if you are diabetic, drink a
toast to the health of your nerve cells from a "shot glass
(usually used for whisky) consisting of two teaspoons of
olive oil and  one tablespoon of grape seed oil flavored with
a teaspoon of honey.

Vitamin D has also been found to alleviate nerve pain
related to diabetes, and is likely to therefore help with
shingles nerve pain as well. The best way to make sure that
you get enough Vitamin D is to get about 20 minutes of sun
each day.

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Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Healthy Life
Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon can help
relieve the nerve pain that accompanies shingles.