Remember chickenpox? Its virus is still lurking in your nerve cells and can flare up at any time during your adult years, causing the intensely painful blisters known as shingles. The good news is that natural remedies can often help to ease this sometimes lingering condition.

What is it?

Shingles (herpes zoster) is a form of the herpes virus that causes chickenpox. After an attack of chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in nerve cells. Later, it can be reactivated, producing intensely painful clumps of skin blisters. Shingles is not contagious, though open sores can transmit the virus to young children or others who've never been infected.

What causes it?

The virus responsible for shingles is thought to be reactivated when the immune system is weakened by age, stress, flu or certain immune-impairing drugs or illnesses. But no one knows for sure what causes the virus to resurface and produce symptoms.

What are the symptoms?

  • Intense burning and tingling in an isolated area of the body one to three days before the skin reddens. May be accompanied by fever and headache.
  • Clusters of fluid-filled, bubble-like blisters that form on an inflamed band of skin, usually on the torso or buttocks, but sometimes on the face or arms. Blisters cause intense pain and itching and form scabs after 10 days.
  • Pain typically subsides after two or three weeks, but sometimes persists for months or years (this is known as postherpetic neuralgia).

Are there any natural therapies?

Therapies are designed for acute flare-ups (and are taken until lesions heal) and for post-shingles pain, which can persist for months, or even years. The supplements for an acute attack – which should be taken together – can be further divided into two main groups: topical therapies, which are applied directly to skin lesions, and supplements, which are ingested to boost the immune system and help heal inflamed skin and nerves.

Topical treatments, such as aloe vera gel combined with vitamin E oil, may provide immediate relief. Hypericum oil also is very effective. These relieve pain and itching, promote healing and reduce the risk of infection. In addition, a cream of melissa or licorice applied to the affected areas may be effective.

For internal treatment during flare-ups, vitamin C, flavonoids and vitamin A are antioxidants that help to protect against cell damage. Along with the herbs echinacea and goldenseal, they boost immune function, assisting in the fight against herpes virus and bacterial skin infections. In addition, the amino acid lysine, as well as selenium and flaxseed oil, promote healthy skin growth and speed healing.

For lingering post-shingles pain (postherpetic neuralgia), stick with what worked for you during the acute phase, and add vitamin E (500 IU twice a day) to protect against cell damage, and vitamin B12 (1000 mcg with 400 mcg of folic acid every morning) to nourish the sheath that covers and protects the nerves. Homeopathic Hypericum 6x pillules are often effective, especially to ease numbness, tingling and postherpetic neuralgia. Topical cayenne (capsaicin) cream may dull the pain.

What else can I do?

  • Keep affected areas clean and dry. Never scratch or try to burst blisters, which can cause a bacterial infection.
  • Use cool, wet compresses or ice packs to soothe the area and reduce pain. You can also apply calamine lotion to the skin.

Did you know?

Shingles strikes many thousands of people every year, most of them over the age of 50 – though younger people can also be afflicted with the disease.