The mailbag has been brimming with great health-related questions lately.
Please, keep ’em coming!
Today I’d like to answer a question we got that’s short and sweet… but sometimes the shortest questions require the longest answers.
I’ve held off on getting a shingles shot. I’m not a fan of Big Pharma. Can you shed any light on the risks of this kind of treatment? – Reader S.H.
Thanks, S.H., for this important question.
One out of every three people deals with shingles and the blistering, painful rash that comes with it.1
It’s brutal. It’s uncomfortable. It can last for months. And sometimes it leaves visible scarring from the fluid-filled blisters that erupt before scabbing over.
It starts with what looks like a spider bite. It’ll be a little itchy. But tomorrow there will be another one. And once it takes root, it usually spreads on the torso and looks something like a zombie attack. Then comes a fever, weakness and an overall rundown feeling.
The pain can range from a constant dull or burning sensation to sharp, stabbing pains that come and go.
If shingles targets the face, it can lead to hearing loss, vision loss or even problems with tasting food.
In 10% to 15% of cases, shingles can lead to postherpetic neuralgia, which is a painful condition that attacks nerve fibers and the skin.
And when this nasty little virus finds a home in the nerve tissue, many doctors tend to prescribe a steroid like prednisone and an antiviral medication to stop it from spreading further.
Then it’s just a matter of waiting, and grinning and bearing it.
Remember that time your parents sent you over to little Johnny’s for a sleepover… even though he was covered in weird red spots? And then a couple of weeks later you suspiciously had similar spots all over your body?
Well, when your parents were getting your case of chickenpox out of the way (which was a good idea because chickenpox is easier to deal with the younger you are), they introduced you to the varicella zoster virus.
Once the chickenpox fades, the virus lies dormant in your body… until something reactivates it and it multiplies in the form of shingles.
What triggers shingles is unclear. But it’s thought that shingles comes about when the immune system is weakened. This can be from advancing age, autoimmune viruses, stress, a trauma of some sort or a treatment involving immunosuppressive drugs.
To make matters worse, shingles can rear its head again and again… unlike chickenpox, which typically strikes only once.
The one upside is that you can’t spread shingles to others. However, if you have shingles, you can spread chickenpox to others who’ve never had that before.2
All of this is to say… shingles is bad news and people should take measures to avoid it.
So What Should You Do?
Now I’m with you on not trusting Big Pharma, but unlike the flu shot (which is pretty much a crapshoot as to whether it works or not), there is one that actually does work for shingles… and one I’d stay away from.
The first shingles vaccine approved to hit the market was Zostavax.
This is a live vaccine, meaning it contains a weakened version of the virus. And it’s proven to be about 51% effective. But it has side effects like headaches, skin rashes, and joint and muscle pain.3
If I’m going to inject something with basically a 50-50 shot at prevention, I definitely don’t want to deal with side effects like those, so Zostavax is NOT for me.
But like how the makers of the Oreo cookie took Hydrox’s recipe and perfected it, a more recent option is on the market with a 90% efficacy rate.
It’s called Shingrix, and the most common side effect is soreness at the injection site – which is not uncommon for a shot of any kind.
Shingrix is a recombinant vaccine. That means it was made and purified by altering the DNA of an antigen in order to produce an immune response to fight the virus… As opposed to injecting a live virus into the body.
A word of warning is that some people do have an allergic reaction to Shingrix.
The one other caveat I want to mention is that because this is a relatively new vaccine, we don’t know exactly how long it lasts for. It’s estimated to provide protection for up to four years. And some say it can last longer than that. But definitive timetables are still pending.
Now, if you’re still adamantly opposed to getting this vaccination (and I understand if that’s the case), your best bet to ward off shingles is to make sure your immune system is healthy as an ox.
One simple way to do this is to eat lots of fruits high in vitamin C (grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, etc.) that boost the production of white blood cells and fight infection. Vitamin D and zinc are also known to boost the immune system.
A healthy helping of garlic also strengthens the immune system’s ability to fight germs. It’s like steroids for your white blood cells, giving them extra fighting power.4
Spinach, ginger, turmeric and green tea also have immune system boosting properties that are certainly worth incorporating into your diet.
And I know this isn’t a sexy preventive measure, but making sure you get plenty of sleep and exercise are also excellent ways to improve your immune system and possibly keep that nasty varicella zoster virus from waking from its slumber.
Keep the health questions coming. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to see them addressed in a future mailbag piece.