• Close photo of yellow house shingles.

Shingles: Prevention and Care for House and Body

Shingles: Prevention and Care for House and Body

Want to prevent or care for shingles on your house or body? Read on!

Some of us want not to get house shingles. They usually require unique maintenance (like scraping, repainting, or staining every four or five years). Laborious. So if you want to prevent your house from getting shingles, you have to stay home all the time by day during outdoor work season, to watch out for the industrious people who come ‘round to your house and put up shingles. (These are people are maybe from the House Shingles Benevolent Society, but I’m not sure.) If you can’t stay home all day, ask a neighbor to pay attention for you. If you come home, having gone out briefly for, maybe, a ventriloquist show, and find some shingles up there on your house, you can either have them taken down (leaving unsightly holes in your existing siding), or you can let the installers finish the job and then learn to care for the shingles: It’s ideal if the shingles are cedar, so you won’t have much to do. Just power wash every five or so years, and apply a clear stain. So much for house shingles. Not too awful.

Having shingles on or in your body is a whole other thing. Shingles is (seems like it should be “are” but it’s “is”) a reactivation of the chickenpox virus (aka, herpes zoster), a virus roughly 95% of Americans have or had during childhood, and it lies dormant in the body indefinitely. In childhood, the virus results in just a sometimes insufferably itchy rash. But herpes zoster in the shingles form is infinitely worse than its predecessor counterpart: It involves – about 85% of the time – a blistering, painful rash, and an attack on one or more nerve paths (dermatomes) such that one experiences tremendous nerve pain. Shingles can be hard to diagnose, especially because of that roughly 15% percent of people who have shingles but not the telltale rash. But it is red hot important to get diagnosed as soon as possible, even if you don’t have that rash, because the sooner you get diagnosed, the sooner you get the antiviral medication (e.g., Valtrex), which you take for a week. The antiviral will usually cut down by half how long you have searing pain, from around 59 to 29 days. The antiviral drug is considered relatively benign, so even if it's not 100% clear you have shingles, medical folks lean towards medicating you in order to help ease your course of presumed shingles.

“Oh, but how common is shingles, really?” you might ask, timidly starting to look at your acne outbreak with an entirely new queasiness. The answer: It is estimated that roughly one-third - ONE THIRD! - of everyone who has had chickenpox in youth will get shingles in adulthood. It is most common in folks over the age of 50, but it can happen to anyone of any age, with any haircut, any sense of humor. And get this: Shingles can show up anywhere there are nerves in your body: which is everywhere: on your back, running down your leg, in your ear, in your eyes (can cause vision loss), in your mouth (making it impossible for you to swallow). It can be limited to one nerve root and its path, or it can cover pretty much your whole body. Also get this: For about 15% of people who get shingles, the pain doesn’t disappear once the rash (if it was there to begin with) has gone. The lingering pain (called “Post-Herpetic Neuralgia” – “PHN”) can linger for months, years, halting your life, spinning you into an abyss of pain management heck, and never summiting Mount Hood, let alone food shopping.

So let’s assume you want to prevent shingles on your body. Let’s talk about how to prevent shingles from damning your life. There is a new vaccine out now called Shingrex which is a dead-virus vaccine. The prior vaccine utilized a live virus and so was thought to be risky for those with AutoImmune (AI) disease. If you have an AI disease, still do check with your AI specialist about this, but it’s generally thought to be safer. Shingrex can be gotten through your doctor or via a pharmacy. Some insurances do not cover Shingrex until you are age 60 or over, which is a shame because, as noted, shingles can beset anyone of any age. If you want a vaccination and you are under age 60, consider persisting. out—of-pocket it costs a pretty penny (around $220 total) for the two doses, but you might consider it worthwhile. If you want the vaccine and your insurance doesn’t cover it, advocate for yourself as best you can. Or ask for Shingrex as a holiday gift, or for your birthday. Because nothing says, “Happy holidays!” or “Happy birthday!” better than a couple of shots in the arm.

It’s also thought that eating a diet higher in the amino acid lysine and lower in the amino acid arginine helps prevent Shingles. Those who have herpes simplex (resulting, often, in so-called “cold sores” of the mouth or elsewhere) may have drawn on this dietary knowledge prophylactically for decades. For some reason, the herpes family feeds on arginine in the form of, for example, almonds. Doesn’t mean you can’t eat almonds and other high-arginine foods. It just means balancing it with foods higher in lysine. Stress is also thought to possibly trigger reactivation. Stress is, as we know, thought to be a factor in everything that besets us, including ice during the winter. So if we learn to minimize stress we can maybe hedge towards preventing shingles, and we can maybe lower the freezing temperature of water. Both would be really nice.

Should you find yourself with a vile outbreak of shingles, care is truly key. It’s vital to rest, but also recommended that you stay active and give your nerves a bit of a run for their money, to prevent stiffness, and to fend off boredom and despair. Know that, with shingles, you might actually feel sickish, like you have a bad cold, or, worse, flu-like. So attend to that as you would any such illness. If you have shingles, you have, after all, a virus. And your body will react accordingly.

The main thing is to consider taking the antiviral medication ASAP, ideally within 72 hours of blistering. If you get the antiviral after that window, it will still help, but be somewhat less effective. Note that the antiviral medication does not kill the virus, but inhibits its spread. Essentially, it can put it back into dormancy. If you don’t want to take a prescription, you can explore other antiviral options like olive leaf. Cambridge Naturals in Porter Square can direct you to antiviral herbs.

For the places on your body that are screaming with nerve pain, you can explore something topical like prescription strength capsaisin cream, which contains the same hot stuff as hot peppers, which you will apply to your skin (but not on sensitive areas like around your eyes) and usually feel a searing, burning pain, partly because your skin-over-the-nerve-pain spot is heightendly sensitive with shingles, but also because you are weirdly choosing to apply hot pepper to your skin, like you’re doing something you’d never ordinarily do, which you are. The hilarious thing is, you will feel that horrible heat for several days on your skin, and your under-the-skin nerve will also feel much, much worse, probably, because the hot pepper is supposed to push the nerve to a point of sheer exhaustion and then shutting down and probably planning revenge on you or someone undeserving, like kindly, gentle Gwenn. That shutting down can happen anywhere from two days to never. So it’s in your hands to decide. If you do use capsaisin, do not apply it and then decide to – say - remove your contact lenses or pick your nose without first washing your hands really thoroughly with soap. (If you have Shingles pain, it’s okay to pick your nose anytime you want because “I’M IN EXCRUCISTING PAIN!!! STOP JUDGING ME!!!” Sure thing.)

Not super interested in the saga and uncertainty of capsaisin cream? You might seriously consider using topical Cannabidiol (CBD) salves. CBD is a cannabis compound that has proven, significant medical benefits, but does not result in the “stoned” experience. CBD salves (and other CBD products) are now carried in licensed stores. You might crawl down, again, to Cambridge Naturals, wince your nerve-wretched way to the back of the store where there’s a counter that has a host of CBD products, including topical salves. The benevolent, compassionate employees of Cambridge Naturals are all trained in the use of CBD products. They will guide you on which products might be most helpful to you, many of the staff using them themselves for various conditions. They will help you through the decision-making process without so much as a light-saber-feather-arrayed giggle or any indication that they think your haircut is the most profoundly awe-inspiring fluttery haircut they have ever seen because CBD does not give them a high even if they used it five minutes before you winced your way to the CBD counter.

And then there’s The Relaxation Response - also called “medical meditation” - for pain management. If you are reading this and you have shingles pain, do not come to my home to breathe fire at me for how stupid it sounds to meditate with the kind of pain you have. And you won’t be able to shingle my house with chartreuse-colored shingles because you have way too much pain to do anything like that. (I’m so sorry.) But, wait a second: The Relaxation Response can help turn down the normal response to pain - nerve or any kind of pain. It can also help desensitize you to the pain. So, by the way, can good training in physical therapy. See about getting a referral to a good physical therapist. There are lots in Cambridge – at Spaulding Rehab on Cambridge Street, for example. Or at Cambridge Hospital, Mount Auburn, or a host of private practitioners.

So, shingles. Shingles, shingles, shingles. Such a delicate name for something so terribly life-altering, if only on a temporary basis. Consider talking with your medical folks about it, learning about prevention, and, if you find yourself beset by it, know that there are many ways to ease your suffering. Don’t be surprised, though, if you do get Shingles and you tell people about it, they might not understand how serious it is:

You: (Simmering with envy over someone who can walk, eat, reach for dishes, think, etc.): “I have shingles.”
Neighbor: “Oh, that’s great! Hey, ya know…the House Shingles Benevolent Society can install them for you!”