Shingles is a viral disease that causes a painful, itchy, blistered rash. An estimated 1 in 3 adults are likely to suffer from shingles at least once in their lifetime.
The virus responsible for shingles is the varicella zoster virus (also known as herpes zoster virus), the same one that causes chickenpox in children. When you have chickenpox as a child the virus doesn’t completely go away, instead it lies dormant in your nerve cells.
In adulthood, the virus can reactivate and bring on a shingles attack. Shingles isn’t contagious and you can’t pass it on to people you’re in close contact with, however you could transmit chickenpox to someone who hasn’t had that infection or the chickenpox vaccine.
Chickenpox is dangerous for some people, so if you have shingles you should avoid contact with pregnant women, infants, and those with weakened immune systems.
There is a vaccine available to older adults that can reduce the risk of shingles developing, and antiviral drugs are available. These antivirals don’t kill the virus but they can lessen the severity of the illness and shorten its duration. Antiviral drugs need to be taken at the onset of the rash in order to be most effective.
It’s possible to suffer through more than one instance of shingles but thankfully this is quite rare.
If you prefer to treat illnesses with more natural methods, you’ll be glad to know that some essential oils have antiviral and other properties that act against the varicella zoster virus and help you to feel better.
- 1 Symptoms Of Shingles
- 1.1 Shingles Triggers
- 1.2 Complications of Shingles
- 1.3 Essential Oils For Shingles
- 1.4 Lavender Essential Oil (Lavandula angustifolia)
- 1.5 Peppermint Essential Oil (Mentha piperita)
- 1.6 Spearmint Essential Oil (Mentha spicata)
- 1.7 Geranium Essential Oil (Pelargonium graveolens)
- 1.8 Thyme Essential Oil (Thymus vulgaris)
- 1.9 Niaouli Essential Oil (Melaleuca viridiflora)
- 1.10 Eucalyptus Essential Oil (Eucalyptus radiata)
- 1.11 Ravintsara Essential Oil (Cinnamomum camphora)
- 1.12 Coriander Essential Oil (Coriandrum sativum)
- 1.13 Oregano Essential Oil (Origanum vulgare)
- 1.14 Tea Tree Essential Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia)
- 1.15 German Chamomile Essential Oil (Matricaria recutica)
- 1.16 Diluting Essential Oils
- 1.17 Buying Essential Oils
- 1.18 Other Tips For Coping When You Have Shingles
Symptoms Of Shingles
Shingles is usually confined to a single area of the body, but in some cases the pain and the rash will be widespread and can sometimes cover the entire body. Symptoms include:
- Burning or tingling pain
- Sensitivity to touch – even putting on clothing can be too painful.
- A red rash and fluid filled blisters.
- Sensitivity to light
Shingles usually gets better without treatment in 2-4 weeks.
It isn’t entirely clear why some people get shingles while for others the virus remains forever dormant. Some known factors that increase the likelihood of developing shingles include:
- Age – Immune system strength decreases with age and this allows the virus to stage a comeback. You’re more likely to get shingles if you’re over 50, and for those over 80, 1 in 2 people will contract the illness.
- Compromised immunity – Those suffering from other disease like HIV, cancer and diabetes have weakened immune systems and are susceptible to shingles. Self treatment of shingles is not advised in these cases.
- Cancer treatment – Chemotherapy and radiotherapy both lower immunity and increase the risk of many types of infection.
- Stress – Stress, anxiety and emotional trauma all weaken the immune system.
- Certain drugs – The drugs needed by organ transplant patients affect the immune system and the same is true with the long term use of steroid medications.
- Contracting chickenpox during the first 2 years of life increases the risk of developing shingles in adulthood.
As you can see the common link in the above triggers is a weakened immune system. Some essential oils can support immune system strength and these are useful for preventing a shingles attack and for helping your body fight off the virus if the illness develops.
Complications of Shingles
While shingles is a painful and debilitating illness, it’s generally short lived and will clear up without any lingering issues, but in some cases shingles can result in complications.
A fairly common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This is nerve pain that persists after the shingles infection has cleared up. In some people the pain persists for a few weeks, while for others the pain can last for years.
Damaged vision is another complication and is most likely to occur if shingles blisters developed near to, or in the eye. If you have a shingles rash or pain in the eye area, you should seek medical attention to prevent loss of vision.
Shingles can cause serious impairment – inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), facial paralysis, stroke (in seniors), balance and hearing problems.
Ruptured blisters can allow bacterial infections to take hold.
The risk of developing complications is higher for the elderly. Those over 70, who suspect they have shingles are encouraged to see their doctor.
Essential Oils For Shingles
It’s best to use a blend of essential oils to treat shingles. This way you’ll be able to combine antiviral essential oils with ones that relieve pain, itching and inflammation. And because shingles is such a painful condition, using essential oils with sedative properties will help you to sleep through the discomfort.
When it comes to antiviral essential oils, there are quite a number to choose from and all can be useful, but depending on the type of virus, certain oils will be more effective than others.
One significant factor to take into account when you’re choosing an antiviral essential oil is whether the virus you need to treat is an enveloped or nonenveloped virus.
Shingles in an enveloped virus and as such is better targeted with essential oils containing high concentrations of monoterpenes like alpha-terpineol, terpineol – 4, linalool, geraniol, citronellol, menthol, carvacrol, cineole and thymol.
While these substances have been identified as the main antiviral constituents in various essential oils, the numerous other components in the oils all work to enhance one another. In laboratory tests, the antiviral action of complete essential oils has proven to be ten times as strong as the action of the isolated components.
Lavender Essential Oil (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender contains linalool which has antiviral activity. It’s also antibacterial, so it will help to keep secondary infections away from your blisters.
Lavender relieves stress and promotes restful sleep, which apart from making you feel better, will also give your immune system a boost.
Lavender essential oil is an analgesic which means that it can help to relieve pain. This property is useful by itself to dull pain, and you can also make use of this pain relieving action when your over-the-counter or prescription pain medication has worn off and it isn’t time for the next dose.
Peppermint Essential Oil (Mentha piperita)
When applied topically, peppermint essential oil has a wonderful cooling action which soothes inflamed skin and relieves itching. The principal constituent of peppermint essential oil is menthol which acts as an antiviral. Peppermint will also help to lower a fever, kill bacteria and ease pain.
Peppermint is a stimulating oil, so it isn’t suitable for use before bed because it could prevent you from dropping off to sleep easily.
Spearmint Essential Oil (Mentha spicata)
Spearmint has similar actions to peppermint, but its principal constituent is carvone and not menthol, although it does contain some menthol. Carvone acts as an antiviral and this substance together with geraniol is the subject of antiviral patent application to the European Patent Office.
Unlike peppermint, spearmint is non stimulating so can be used at any time of the day. Spearmint also reduces fever and kills bacteria.
Whenever pain from shingles is very severe, spearmint oil is an excellent remedy because it has a local anesthetic action. This oil is also a good choice if you experience postherpetic neuralgia.
Geranium Essential Oil (Pelargonium graveolens)
The principal antiviral constituents in geranium essential oil are geraniol and citronellol. The oil has a calming aroma and helps to promote relaxation.
Its anti-inflammatory action helps to reduce the itching and discomfort of the rash, and its analgesic action eases pain.
One trial carried out in 2003 on subjects suffering from postherpetic neuralgia found that topical application of geranium essential oil brought about significant pain relief.
Thyme Essential Oil (Thymus vulgaris)
Thymol, the main constituent of thyme essential oil is a potent antiviral and antibacterial.
In addition to combatting the shingles virus, thyme oil stimulates the immune system.
This oil can be a skin irritant and should be used at a 1.3% dilution – 8 drops per ounce of carrier oil.
Not recommended for use during pregnancy. Not suitable for those taking blood thinning medications. May irritate mucous membranes so best applied topically instead of adding to bathwater.
Niaouli Essential Oil (Melaleuca viridiflora)
Niaouli is in the same family as tea tree oil and its major constituent cineole, is a potent antiviral.
As an analgesic essential oil, niaouli provides pain relief, and as an antibacterial it will help to kill germs and prevent bacterial infection of the blisters on your skin.
Eucalyptus Essential Oil (Eucalyptus radiata)
Another antiviral essential oil with cineole as the main constituent. Additional properties of this oil make it a good pain reliever and it’s noted for its ability to ease neuralgic pain, so it’s very well suited to shingles pain and to the discomfort caused by postherpetic neuralgia.
Eucalyptus Blue Gum is a good alternative.
Ravintsara Essential Oil (Cinnamomum camphora)
Ravintsara contains the antiviral compound cineole and has a high percentage of other terpenes in its makeup. It’s a commonly recommended essential oil for shingles and in addition to tackling the virus, ravintsara is an anti-inflammatory oil that can help to ease itching, as well as being a good essential oil for supporting the immune system and getting restful sleep.
Coriander Essential Oil (Coriandrum sativum)
Analgesic and antibacterial, coriander essential oil can help to ease pain and keep your blisters free of bacterial infection. It’s also a stimulating oil, so one that’s best avoided when you need to sleep. The main antiviral constituent of this oil is linalool.
Oregano Essential Oil (Origanum vulgare)
With carvacrol as its principal constituent, oregano oil is widely used as an antiviral essential oil. Oregano is also used to reduce fever, relieve pain and kill bacteria.
Oregano should be used at a lower concentration than is generally recommended for other oils. Robert Tisserand states in Essential Oil Safety, that the safe dermal maximum for oregano essential oil is 1.1%. This works out to 6 drops per ounce of carrier oil.
Not suitable for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and is not recommended for those taking blood thinners.
Tea Tree Essential Oil (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Tea tree provides antiviral and antibacterial actions thanks to its high terpineol – 4 content, as well as support for your immune system.
German Chamomile Essential Oil (Matricaria recutica)
German chamomile isn’t an antiviral essential oil, but it’s useful for shingles nevertheless. Chamomile is a very strong anti-inflammatory and will calm the shingles rash and ease itching. It’s also an antibacterial essential oil, and one that can lower a fever.
The pain relieving properties of chamomile are well suited to nerve pain and it’s a good choice for postherpetic neuralgia.
Blends well with any of the antiviral essential oils.
Diluting Essential Oils
While some people encourage the use of undiluted essential oils on skin, the safest way to use the oils is to always dilute them with a carrier oil or other solvent.
Essential oils used undiluted can cause skin irritation and burning, rashes, blisters and hives, and in some cases skin sensitization.
When sensitization occurs with a particular essential oil, any subsequent use of that oil will result in a long-lasting allergic reaction that can take months to settle down.
A standard dilution that is safe and effective is a 2% dilution for otherwise healthy adults and a 1% dilution for young children and the elderly.
A 2% dilution uses 12 drops of essential oil per 30 ml (one ounce) of carrier oil.
A 1% dilutions uses 6 drops of essential oil per 30 ml (one ounce) of carrier oil.
A carrier oil is simply a vegetable based oil obtained from seeds or nuts. So you can use common store cupboard oils like olive oil or sunflower oil, or you can opt for coconut oil, jojoba oil, almond oil, rice bran oil, etc.
Mineral oils like baby oil are no good for essential oil dilution because these oils can’t penetrate the skin and only form a film on top. Once an essential oil is dispersed in a vegetable based carrier oil, that oil will penetrate the skin taking the essential oil with it.
Some essential oils can be used at higher concentrations, and when dealing with a virus like shingles, these higher concentrations would typically offer greater success. For a full and authoritative account of safe dermal maximums you should consult Robert Tisserand’s book, Essential Oil Safety.
Essential oils don’t mix well with water and any oils added to your bath should first be mixed with a tablespoon of vodka or glycerin to help them disperse and prevent the neat oils coming into contact with your skin or mucus membranes.
Buying Essential Oils
Good quality essential oils are a must if you want to use them therapeutically. Lower quality oils are fine for soap or candle making, and for air fresheners and perfumes, but these oils are generally adulterated with other substances which is why they are cheaper than the pure oils.
If you use an adulterated oil, each drop will be less potent than it should be. Instead of getting 12 drops of powerful plant medicine when you make up a batch of diluted oil, you may only get 3 or 4 drops worth of actual essential oil.
A product with a label stating that the oil is pure or therapeutic grade isn’t enough to tell the good oils from the ‘fakes’, since manufacturers can put whatever they want on the label, and no one enforces essential oil purity standards.
The safest option is to purchase from trusted essential oil specialist retailers like Plant Therapy, Mountain Rose Herbs and Tisserand. There are of course many other high quality retailers, but those are three of the best when it comes to quality, affordability and customer service.
Other Tips For Coping When You Have Shingles
Wear the loosest, lightest, softest, cotton clothes or pajamas that you can find. Loose
cotton clothing allows your skin to breathe and stops you from getting hot and sweaty. Tighter clothing or clothing made from heavier weight fabrics can rub against your sensitive, inflamed skin and cause you a lot of additional misery.
Choose baggy underwear if you have shingles in your groin area. Tight briefs will rub and chafe at your skin, causing pain. A better choice is soft cotton baggy boxers or briefs that are a size or two larger than you would normally wear.
When your rash is driving you to distraction, taking a cool bath can really help. Warm or hot baths will cause more intense itching and pain, so make sure that the water is lukewarm. When you get out of the bath, let your skin air dry if possible, otherwise pat very gently with a soft towel or cotton t-shirt.
Adding colloidal oatmeal to your bath is another option. Oatmeal is a wonderful emollient that soothes itching. To make colloidal oatmeal all you need to do is grind regular oatmeal into a fine powder in a coffee grinder. While your bath is filling, pour 2 to 3 cups of the oatmeal under the running water. Don’t worry, you won’t end up covered in a porridgy sludge! Be careful when you get out of the bath though because the oatmeal will make the bath a little slippery.
Sleep as much as you can. When you’re asleep you won’t be bothered by itchy blisters or have to deal with the pain. Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature so that you can sleep covered with a light sheet instead of heavy blankets or quilts.
Drink plenty of fluids. Pain often feels more intense when you’re dehydrated. Even mild dehydration (feeling thirsty) can lead to higher pain sensitivity.
Don’t scratch or pick at the blisters. Use cool compresses instead.