Shingles (herpes zoster)

Shingles, an acute infection caused by varicella zoster (chickenpox) virus (VZV), can be an excruciating condition with painful skin blisters, generally down one side of the body, following the course of the inflamed nerve. Although the worst symptoms subside within a month, the pain can persist for months or even years.

The orthodox approach uses the drug aciclovir, which eases the symptoms, but doesn’t cure it. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, offers a large array of ways to rid yourself of this painful condition.

Orthomolecular medicine
This therapeutic approach suggests 6 g of ascorbic acid together with 1 g of the amino acid L-lysine daily, and a 1-mL intramuscular injection of vitamin B12 twice a week. According to the cases reported, all pain was gone within 24 hours and the lesions had begun to heal (Hoffer A, Orthomolecular Medicine for Physicians, New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, 1989). The B12 injections can be replaced by a 20-mcg/day oral dose of B12 taken under the tongue.

Nutritional medicine
Many studies have shown that proteolytic enzymes (160 mg of trypsin, 160 mg of chymotrypsin and 400 mg of papainase), taken five times daily, are as effective as aciclovir against shingles (Fortschr Med, 1995; 113: 39-44; Phytomedicine, 1996; 2: 7-15).

In one Russian study, 150 patients with acute shingles received trypsin alone. Compared with 200 similar patients on the standard antiviral drug therapy, trypsin proved highly effective in reducing symptoms during the acute stage. None of the trypsin group had recurrences or developed postherpetic neuralgia during the three-year follow-up (Vrach Delo, 1991; 3: 86-9).

Supplementation
Adenosine-5’-monophosphate (AMP), a naturally occurring purine nucleotide, is needed for nucleic acid synthesis. Patients with shingles have abnormally low levels of AMP as well as high levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) (JAMA, 1977; 237: 871-2).

In one double-blind study, shingles patients received intramuscular 100-mL AMP injections three times a week for four weeks. The AMP reduced herpetic pain almost immediately and, after four weeks, 88 per cent of the AMP-treated patients were pain-free vs 43 per cent with placebo.

To prevent the chest pain that may follow AMP injection, take half the dose, followed 20 minutes later by the other half (Med Sci Bull, 1985; 7: 86-9; Nutr Heal, 1996; 3: 58-61). One concern is that AMP readily converts to adenosine, which can suppress immune function, although these dosages appear to be too small to have any significant effect. Nevertheless, scientific studies haven’t yet ruled out the possibility.

Acupuncture and cupping
Never use acupuncture or cupping (using glass cups to create suction on the skin) on patients with herpes zoster (Shanghai College of Traditional Medicine, O’Connor J, Bensky D, transl, Acupuncture: A Comprehensive Text, Seattle, WA: Eastland Press, 1984: 618).

African medicine
In Africa, the leaf of Plantago major (common plantain), whole or bruised, is applied to the skin affected by shingles lesions.

Experiments have confirmed the plant’s microbial-killing action, which facilitates healing (Int Abstr Biol Sci, 1960; 16: 817). The leaves are also reported to be anti-inflammatory and to aid new skin growth, with no adverse side-effects (Am J Pharm, 1950; 122: 24; Int Abstr Biol Sci, 1959; 15: 5414).

European folk medicine
Applying the fresh juice or pulp of the ordinary leek to the affected skin is said to be soothing and to speed up the healing process (Bartram T, Bartram’s Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine, London: Robinson Publishing, 1998: 227).

Homoeopathy
Paraphenylenediamine can bring on the symptoms of herpes in healthy individuals (Ann Homéop Françaises, 1963; 10: 57/777-65/785). Try this first at the 6CH potency.

Osteopathy
The headaches and myofascial pain syndrome that accompanies shingles and prevents sleep may be effectively relieved by osteopathy (Travell JG, Simons DG, Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual, Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1983).

Herbs
Chinacanthus nutans (or phaya yo in Thai) has been shown to promote healing. In a controlled clinical trial of 51 patients, this herb, in the form of a poultice, was applied five times a day to the skin affected by shingles lesions, for seven to 14 days. This resulted in rapid healing (J Med Assoc Thai, 1995; 78: 624-7). A larger randomised, controlled trial reported the same positive results (Int J Dermatol, 1996; 35: 665-6).

Applying capsaicin (the alkaloid derived from the pod of Capsicum frutescens, cayenne pepper) to the affected skin can relieve long-term pain after an episode of shingles, according to a review of three randomised controlled trials (Fam Pract, 1996; 13: 84-91).

At the very first signs of blisters, applying Melissa (balm) ointment onto the skin can ameliorate the later progression of the shingles outbreak. Tolerance is excellent (Zeitschr Phytother, 1981; VI: 229).

Harald Gaier is a registered homoeopath, naturopath and osteopath.