When I first noticed the small red bumps on my neck, I thought they were bug bites. After all, I had just returned from the cottage where the mosquitos were hungry. The next day I felt more bumps on the back of my neck. Although they were itchy they didn’t really feel or look like mosquito bites. It wasn’t until the third day, after an evening with friends, that I noticed how the bumps had multiplied and spread, forming a prickly rash on the side of my neck and around my ear.
Since it was too late at night to go to a clinic, I turned on my computer, hoping an internet search would aid in a diagnosis. Images of rashes popped onto the screen, and it wasn’t long before I found what looked like my condition – shingles. I thought that shingles occurred just on the torso I soon learned that shingles can often appear on the side of neck, scalp, and even face. I also learned that some people can experience a deep pain along one side of the body without ever developing a rash (making diagnosis even more challenging) – this was the case with a friend of mine who developed shingles during a stressful period in her life.
The Mayo Clinic website explains how shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles. It’s estimated that about 30% of people who have had chickenpox will develop shingles, and if you are over 50 you’re at greater risk as the immune system can weaken with age and anti-bodies are slower to form.
Because shingles follows the neural pathway, it typically affects only one side of the body. For some people the pain of shingles can be excruciating; in my case I felt shooting pains along my jaw and into my ear, my arm ached, and the area of the rash was very sensitive, red, and prickly-feeling.
Although there is no apparent cure for shingles, doctors will prescribe antiviral drugs to speed healing and reduce risk of complications. Since antiviral drugs should be started within 72 hours of the appearance of a rash if they are to be effective, and worried that my hearing could be affected, I quickly made my way to the ER department at a local hospital.
In the early hours of the morning the doctor examined my neck, initially doubtful that my self-diagnosis was correct. After conferring with her ‘smart phone’, she prescribed antiviral drugs, along with Naproxen and Prednisone to reduce inflammation and pain.
I later learned that Prednisone, if taken for long periods, can put one at greater risk of developing shingles because it reduces the body’s immune response. Thankfully, I was prescribed only a 5-day course of this corticosteroid drug.
The Naproxen affected my sleep, so I cut back on when and how many I was taking, and began looking at alternative methods of treatment.
Alternative Approach to Shingles Treatment
I made an appointment for a consultation with a naturopath the next day. After reviewing my health history and my current concerns, a course of acupuncture treatments along with supplements was recommended. At the top of the list was L-Lysine, an essential amino acid that is reported to have antiviral effects with the added benefit of helping with calcium absorption. For the next couple of weeks, I was to increase the amount of Lysine to 8 capsules a day (4,000 mg) and increase my vitamin C consumption to over 4000 mg / day to help strengthen my immune system. Vitamin B12 shots are sometimes recommended but I opted to take them orally along with increasing my intake of vitamins D and E.
I was also advised to consume foods that have a high Lysine to Arginine ratio – Arginine being an amino acid that competes with lysine for absorption. The food chart I was given lists yogurt at the top (with ratio of 2.9 Lysine/Arginine ratio), and foods near the bottom of the chart included nuts, orange juice, and mushrooms.
As well, acupuncture treatments were started immediately, with the recommendation that they occur every other day. It was explained that acupuncture can assist in relieving pain while bringing white blood cells to the affected area. According to Oriental medicine, this is supposed to “expel wind” or internal heat. I was nervous about having small needles inserted around my ear and into my jaw – the site of my rash which was very sensitive to any touch. Treatment began at my feet and legs, then my hand, inner arm, and finally the area of the rash. Needles used were very small and once inserted I could barely feel them, as long as I kept muscles relaxed. After about 20 minutes, the needles were removed. I came back for two more treatments, although I was told the number of treatments depends on the individual and stage of the virus. By the following week I was noticing an improvement, the rash slowly fading.
Sleep was an ongoing challenge; I knew that getting enough was important in strengthening my immune system and fighting the virus. The burning sensation and itch would constantly awaken me. To help provide relief, the naturopath recommended peppermint essential oil in a carrier oil such as almond or coconut. What I found very helpful was a cooling gel containing aloe and peppermint. I kept it in the refrigerator which provided additional relief from the heat of the rash. As well, I found a cream for rosacea helpful in reducing redness.
LivRelief cream and Zostrix ointment containing capsaicin (pain reliever derived from chili peppers) were also recommended by both the naturopath and the doctor to help with post-herpetic neuralgia, a condition which causes the skin to remain painful even after the rash is gone.
As well, my online research turned up a number of other tools to provide relief from the itch, including a cooling compress made from lemon balm tea, another from calamine lotion, and an oatmeal bath. An oatmeal cleanser for eczema was found to be quite soothing, as was a shampoo with tea tree oil. Some people seem to find cider vinegar helpful but this did little for me.
It has been just over four weeks since I first felt the small bumps on my neck. I made a follow-up visit to see my own doctor who confirmed that there was no complications or infections. There is still some tingling and itch but the ear pain is gone, and the rash all but invisible.
There is currently much talk about the shingles vaccine, and although it doesn’t completely guarantee that you won’t get shingles, it can reduce the severity and risk of post-herpetic neuralgia. I do wish I had received the vaccine, and suggest that anyone over 50 talk to a medical professional to see if it a good option for you.