Understanding Chicken Pox, Shingles, and Herpes

lawley_image_blog_tpCandace Lawley, Certified Herbalist

The varicella-zoster virus causes both chicken pox and shingles. Varicella, or chicken pox, is the highly-contagious, initial manifestation of the virus. Its period of activity usually lasts about 7-14 days (longer for the immune-compromised). Initial symptoms can include a fever, headache, fatigue, and loss of appetite. A few days later, blisters appear. Once the blisters have formed a crust, varicella is no longer considered active.

Following this period, the virus remains dormant in the central nervous system, residing within the sensory ganglia. It has the potential to reactivate as herpes zoster, or shingles. Reactivation usually occurs in the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Herpes zoster is contagious, but not as contagious as varicella. Herpes zoster (shingles) cannot cause herpes zoster (shingles) in another person; it can only cause varicella (chicken pox) in someone who has not already had chicken pox.

HSV1 and HSV2 also reside in the central nervous system. For some, the virus lies dormant for several years before becoming active, and some people never show any symptoms at all. For others, symptoms start to appear a few days after exposure. If the virus does become active, the initial outbreak is usually the most severe, with recurring outbreaks lessening in severity and frequency over time. Additionally, the initial outbreak often includes flu-like symptoms and nerve pain. Similar nerve pain can occur prior to and with subsequent outbreaks as well.

Therapeutics for the Most Common Human Herpes Viruses

Initial Viral Stages

Because varicella-zoster, herpes simplex 1, and herpes simplex 2 are similar, there are therapeutic protocols that can be applied to each of them. For all three viruses immune support is essential during all viral stages. As soon as there has been exposure to the virus (if known) or as soon as symptoms start to appear, immune-system support is the first item of business. As during any illness, it’s best to avoid sugar, NSAIDs, and aspirin, all of which suppress the immune system. For increased immune system support, consider increasing (or beginning) the intake of supplements such as probiotics, vitamin D, vitamin C, and B vitamins.

Rest, hydration, and proper nourishment are also crucial as the virus continues to manifest. In the case of those lacking appetite, bone broths can provide nutritional support without requiring one to eat much.

Topical Care & Pain Management

For any condition with blisters or open skin, it’s important to keep the afflicted area clean in order to prevent infection. Cleanse regularly with a gentle, fragrance-free soap. For further infection prevention, make a light infusion of antibacterial herbs and apply a few times a day with a fine-misting spray bottle. Be sure to let the area dry completely before applying any other kind of topical remedy.

When blisters start to appear, the ailing person will likely want relief from the accompanying itching. Warm herbal baths can be soothing. Vulnerary, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral herbs such as Symphytum off., Avena Sativa, Lavandula spp., and Melissa off. are well-indicated. Adding Epsom salts to the bath can provide further relief.

To help heal the blisters, the topical use of an oil infused with a Lamiaceae-family herb like Melissa off. or Mentha piperita can be beneficial. Adding the essential oil of these same herbs to the infused oil can increase the anti-viral benefits. If there is itching associated with the blisters, a drop or two of Melaleuca alternifolia essential oil can bring relief. If there is pain, Pelargonium graveolens essential oil can be effective. If the blisters are weeping, consider applying astringent herbs such as Plantago spp. using the spray-bottle method previously mentioned.

In addition to tending the blisters with a topical remedy to encourage healing, you will want to address the nerve pain and skin sensitivity that can be part of the shingle and herpes picture. The topical use of nervine-infused oils or tinctures can bring pain relief. Internal analgesic and nervine herbs may also be helpful.

Vitamins, Minerals, and Other Supplements

Supplementation is another key aspect of working with this virus. At first signs of the virus, and throughout its active phase, supplementing with the amino acid lysine will be of huge benefit. It helps to reduce the severity of the outbreak and encourages the blisters to heal faster. The effectiveness of lysine is bolstered when combined with vitamin c, zinc, and flavonoids.

Lysine hinders viral replication by blocking the activity of the amino acid arginine, which means it’s also advised to avoid foods that have a high arginine to lysine ratio. If consuming foods of this nature, it’s critical to supplement with lysine. One note here: if bone broths are part of the therapeutic protocol, supplementing with lysine is especially important for this very reason.

The use of antiviral, adaptogenic, and nervine herbs internally, in tea or tincture form, is also well-indicated throughout all stages.

Prevention of Future Outbreaks

The last consideration applies mostly to herpes simplex, but can also be relevant for shingles as well. When not experiencing outbreaks, preventing them becomes the therapeutic goal. Supplementing with lysine and the other earlier-mentioned vitamins on a daily basis is essential if one wishes to prevent future outbreaks. Additionally, supplementing with Reishi and Cordyceps mushroom extracts can be helpful preventatively.

Keep in mind that outbreaks are more common when the immune system is compromised. In terms of lifestyle, managing stress is very important. For some, excessive heat (think hot yoga) can be aggravating as well.

The most important part of caring for someone with one of the herpes viruses is understanding what therapeutics are appropriate for each stage of the virus. Once this is known, chicken pox, shingles, and herpes all become much more manageable.

Sources Cited:
Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging Resistant and Epidemic Viral Infections. Version 1 (Kindle Edition), Storey Publishing, LLC, October 25, 2013, Location 1714-1785, 1949-2057.
Romm, Aviva. Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. Version 1 (Print), Churchill Livingstone, May 5, 2009, Pages 271-283
Bergner, Paul. Topical medicinal plants for herpes virus infection. Medical Herbalism: A Journal for the Clinical Practitioner. Volume 16, Number 3 Spring 2011
“Herpesviridae.” The Virus Pathogen Resource, https://www.viprbrc.org/brc/aboutPathogen.spg?decorator=herpes, accessed September 19th & 20th, 2016


The information contained in this article is not a substitute for the medical care of a licensed healthcare professional, any health concerns should be discussed with your primary care provider.