A childhood virus can lie in wait for years before attacking again.
It’s one of those stories moms like to break out when company arrives—you know, that one about the long, sleep-deprived weekend she spent trying to comfort a tiny tyke (guess who) suffering from chickenpox. While wincing through yet another telling of the tale, you realize that you don’t even really remember any of it. And who wants to think about such long-ago misery, anyway? You don’t have to worry about that again, right?
Hate to say it, but actually you do. If you’re among the roughly 90% of the adult American population that has had childhood chickenpox, then you can be among the 1 million people who develop shingles every year. This blistery rash can slumber for decades: Up to half of those affected are age 60 or older.
The villain is the varicella-zoster virus. This microbe never really goes away after a chickenpox attack. Instead it creeps into the nerves, where it lies dormant until the immune system is weakened by other disorders or by the aging process itself. When that happens the virus travels back down to the skin, causing flu-like sensations—chills, fever, headache—before breaking out in tiny, red-rimmed blisters that appear over the course of the affected nerve.
Besides the rash, the most notable shingles symptom is pain that’s often excruciating. It may persist long after the blisters disappear; this condition, called post-herpatic neuralgia, can last for years. Vision problems may also occur if the affected nerve serves an eye.
The vexing complications associated with shingles have led to the creation of a vaccine designed to head off this condition. But this drug is expensive and doesn’t work all the time; some people have even developed shingles as a consequence of vaccination.
There is another way to give shingles the slip. “Viruses mutate readily when exposed to antiviral drugs,” says J.E. Williams, Doctor of Oriental Medicine and author of Viral Immunity (Hampton Roads). “However, they have a difficult time adapting to the broad spectrum of active components in botanical medicines.” Vitamin C is particularly noted for fighting the shingles virus, as is the amino acid L-lysine. Olive leaf extract is another known antiviral agent, while licorice extract, used topically, has helped ease both shingles and post-herpatic neuralgia.
Fact is, proper nutrition overall improves immunity. In one study, consumption of less than one piece of fruit daily was linked to a threefold increase in shingles risk compared with eating three pieces a day, and a mix of nutrients—vitamins A, B6, C and E, in addition to folic acid, iron and zinc—were found to aid immune health (International Journal of Epidemiology 4/06). Meanwhile, the entire B vitamin complex supports healthy nerve function, as do calcium and magnesium.
Adequate exercise is a virus-fighting must. But Williams cautions that intensive training can do more harm than good; he suggests yoga and tai chi. The latter’s gentle movements have been shown to boost immunity against varicella-zoster (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 4/07). And exercise reduces stress, another shingles risk factor.
Don’t let your body write a painful sequel to your mom’s old chickenpox story. A healthy immune system can fend off shingles naturally.