What and Why?
If at the time you had chicken pox — perhaps many years ago — your immunity was poor, you may have failed to suppress the virus completely. In that case small remnants of it can lie dormant in your spinal nerve roots until aroused by further exposure to chickenpox at a time when your immunity is low once more. So the story goes, at any rate. The truth is not yet understood and chicken pox may be (like mumps) one of the diseases which stretch our present theories of infection beyond their useful scope.
The illness that follows reactivation of chickenpox is quite different. It begins with severe pain in the part of your body served by the infected nerves — often a stripe round your body, or a part of your face, usually limited to one side. When it affects your chest it can easily be mistaken for a coronary (see coronary), until a red rash covers the painful area and draws your attention to the truth. By that time virus particles have (according to theory) tracked down the nerves to your skin, where they multiply. The result is a series of daily crops of small blisters on the flat red base, similar to chicken pox.
These blisters can affect the skin of your eye and rarely the nerve inside your ear that controls the muscle of your cheek. Occasionally they can produce a very dangerous brain infection. Any part of your body that is under particular immune pressure — a limb containing cancer (see cancer) or severe infection, for example — may be especially singled out for shingles involvement.
However troublesome and painful the rash may be, the debilitating effect shingles can have on you for months after the rash has cleared is far beyond what most people expect. Your brain is fagged and depressed just as if you were severely concussed. Neuralgic pain (see pain) often accompanies this — a stubborn and severe malfunction in the sensory nerves of the rash-affected area, which may never really heal.
Doctors tend to regard shingles as untreatable, and accept rather fatalistically the protracted misery it causes. It is hard to understand why simple remedies offered within other traditions are not at least tried since they can do no harm. Fortunately, it is fairly easy to do the work yourself.
What can I do?
Advice to maintain and maximise your health
1. Maintain your immunity with a healthy diet (see food for health), at all times, supplemented if necessary (see supplements) when you are run down or repeatedly unwell. Be especially wary of visiting grandchildren with chickenpox when you are not vigorously well yourself.
2. Homeopathy: At the very first sign or hint that your pain may be shingles take homoeopathic Variolinum 6, one dose four hourly. The disease in some people has been stopped short at the red rash stage with this. Arsenicum album 3 can be given 4 hourly if the disease develops; Rhus tox may be preferable if you are well under retirement age. You are unlikely to have the other possible remedies readily to hand but could consult a homoeopathic practitioner for further help.
3. Supplementation: Take lots of Vitamin C and Vitamin B, to support your nervous system under such pressure. Home-made Lemon Barley Water and Honey-Cider-Vinegar recipes (see recipes for health) and a diet based on fresh fruit and juices (see vegetarian diets) are best throughout the acute disease until your appetite returns.
4. Pain relief: Calamine Lotion BP with 1% Liquefied Phenol BP is an excellent pain-relieving lotion. It is mildly caustic so avoid getting it near your lips, eyes and genital skin, and do not apply it too often.
5. Cider Vinegar may be preferred or used alternately with this, applied neat to the rash every three hours. Not only is this very soothing but it may help heal the rash faster and is quite harmless.
6. Comfrey oil keeps your skin moist and helps heal the scabs more quickly.
7. Bach Mustard Flower Remedy often helps shingles sufferers through the pain and depression that drags on after the rash has gone (see Bach flower remedies).
8. A practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine may be able to relieve neuralgia if that should follow.