Shingles Part I: Understanding the Viral Phases
Herpes Zoster (a.k.a. Shingles) is an acute skin infection associated with the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (the virus that causes chickenpox). During chicken pox infection, the virus enters the cutaneous nerves and then travels to the dorsal root ganglia where it lies dormant until something triggers it to become active again. Stress, illness, emotional upset, T-cell immuno-suppressant drugs, fatigue and radiation therapy (any circumstances that compromise a patient’s immunity) can trigger the latent virus to travel back down the sensory nerve to infect the surface of the skin (along a single dermatome).
There are 3 distinct clinical phases of shingles: prodromal, active, and chronic.
1. PRODROMAL PHASE
Prodromal refers to the initial phase of an illness, the interval between the earliest symptoms and the appearance of a rash. In the case of Herpes Zoster, this phase can last a few days to 3 weeks before a rash actually appears (typically 4 to 5 days). Pain lasting longer than 3 weeks has been reported and this can cause difficulty in differentiating the source of the pain until the characteristic rash erupts (pre-herpetic pain has been mistaken for migraine, pleurisy, abdominal disease or cardiac pain). Recognizing that shingles pain follows the dermatome can help diagnosis in this early stage. Patients and practitioners take note: we can achieve the best clinical results if we begin treatment (such as herbs) during this initial phase. Be aware that there is a version of shingles in which no lesions actually manifest on the skin. This is called zoster sine herpete and will present similar to the prodromal phase of herpes zoster without the visible rash ever coming out to the surface. It often gets misdiagnosed. Look for one-sided pain (along the rib cage, at the sternocostal joints of ribs, down one leg or one side of the face) that the patient reports as severe, burning, searing, disproportionately tender or sudden and intense, when they cannot recall any trauma or physical activity as a possible trigger.
Skin Symptoms to watch for
These are most often on the sides of the torso, on the chest, along the spine, on the lower back, but possibly on the face (usually forehead) or limbs.
- Pain (sharp, stabbing, pricking, and/or shooting)
- Heightened sensitivity to mild stimuli
Generalized Symptoms to watch for
These are flu-like symptoms that tend to resolve when the rash erupts.
- Slight fever
- Decreased appetite
- Regional lymphadenopathy (swollen lymph nodes)
2. ACTIVE PHASE
Appearance of a rash that manifests as clusters of small red vesicles like beads on an erythematous base (red skin) with burning pain (can be quite severe). The pain is a result of inflammation of the affected nerve, not the lesions themselves. Red patches of blisters (with clear fluid in them) form along the affected nerve pathway (usually only on one side of the body) and form a chain-like distribution of lesions. Occasionally a few vesicles will appear across the midline. Within a few days, blisters become yellow and by the end of the week they start to crust over. New lesions can continue to erupt for the first week. Because the lesions are filled with virus, they can spread easily and are contagious, so patients should avoid touching them. The rash usually resolves within 2 to 3 weeks.
3. CHRONIC PHASE
While the skin itself typically heals without scarring, herpes zoster can sometimes become chronic, manifesting as painful patches of skin (“post-herpetic neuralgia”, PHN). Burning, “ice-burning”, stabbing, or shooting pains can last weeks, months, or even years after the rash has resolved. This is because the injured nerve can fire spontaneously, has a lower activation threshold and has an exaggerated response to stimuli. The central nervous system may also develop inappropriate responses to the signals received from the damaged peripheral nerve. Occasionally, vision or hearing impairment may result if the virus affects certain cranial nerves. The latent varicella-zoster virus typically reactivates only once in a person’s lifetime, but it is possible to develop shingles 2 or 3 times in a lifetime. The elderly, immuno-compromised individuals, and patients taking immuno-suppressant drugs are more likely to suffer from PHN. For these patients pain can be severe or even disabling.
In 10 to 15% of shingles cases, the varicella-zoster virus can become reactivated in the 5th cranial nerve (the trigeminal nerve). The trigeminal nerve has 3 main branches: the ophthalmic, the maxillary, and the mandibular. The ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve divides further into 3 more branches: the frontal, the lacrimal and the nasociliary. If shingles develops along any of these 3 branches it is called herpes zoster ophthalmicus. When the virus affects the nasociliary branch of the ophthalmic nerve, the rash will appear at the side or tip of the nose. This often is an indication that serious ocular complications are possible and treatment must not be delayed to avoid the risk of sight loss.
Chinese medicine is a very effective form of treatment in most cases of shingles (alone or in conjunction with western antivirals), especially if started in the prodromal (pre-eruptive) phase. Treatment is aimed at accelerating the healing and preventing post-herpetic pain and additional complications.
Acupuncture can effectively address pain, accelerate the healing of lesions, and reduce nerve inflammation. Chinese herbs also act to heal lesions and reduce nerve inflammation and additionally they have very strong antiviral properties. The sooner treatment is started, the better the results. TCM treatment of shingles and management of PHN will be covered in the next post.
Publish Date: February 19, 2012 *Articles may include updates since original publishing.
About the Author (Author Profile)Diana Hermann is a licensed acupuncturist and board certified in Chinese Herbal Medicine. She received her Master Degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, OR and trained in China at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Diana treats patients in her Fort Collins, Colorado clinic and hand crafts herbal skin care products for her company Zi Zai Dermatology. In 2015, she completed the Diploma In Chinese Medicine Dermatology program from Avicenna in London, UK. She completed the program for a second time in 2019 in Chicago.
Sites That Link to this Post
- What Having Shingles Felt Like and How I Treated It | Zi Zai Dermatology's Blog | February 28, 2012
- Shingles Part II: TCM Differentiation and Treatment | Zi Zai Dermatology's Blog | March 29, 2012
- Childhood varicella vaccination not linked with greater adult herpes zoster … – 2 Minute Medicine | Shingles News Today | December 3, 2013