What Having Shingles Felt Like and How I Treated It

I am currently recovering from an outbreak of shingles.  As you learned in my previous post, shingles is the common name for the condition that results from a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. Ten days ago, the virus that had been lying dormant in my left 5th cranial nerve since I contracted chicken pox at age 8, became active again.  Have I really been that stressed?  I didn’t think so, but apparently my immune system was taxed enough to let its guard down against the herpes zoster army that subsequently attacked my ophthalmic nerve.

Ophthalmic Zoster Day 2 (doesn't look like much, does it?)

For about a week prior to the rash developing, I had been feeling some tenderness on the left side of the top of my scalp (along the Bladder channel, for those of you who are acupuncturists or are familiar with the pathways of Qi flow).  But I often get some tenderness there so I really didn’t pay much attention to it.  Then one morning a tiny bump appeared just above the inner corner of my left eyebrow.  It looked like a zit that wasn’t quite ready to pop.  I gave it a little squeeze (why, oh why, did I think that was a good idea??) and it really hurt.  I thought perhaps it was a spider bite.  Then a few hours later I felt a mild prickly sensation in the middle of my eyebrow.  Crap.  This is shingles, isn’t it? Well, perhaps not.  But within the next few hours, the prickly sensation had increased in intensity and I began experiencing other neuralgias: disproportionate tenderness of my left eyebrow, sharp pains deep to the little bump (which was also growing in size), the sensation of snowflakes softly landing on my upper eyelid (that would have seemed pretty cool if it wasn’t a sign of nerve problems).  Son of a bitch, I have shingles!  I started taking internal antiviral herbs immediately.  I started myself on Plum Flower brand Yin Chiao Chieh Tu Pien (6 tabs every hour) and Zhong Gan Ling (also 6 tabs every hour) for the rest of that first day because it was the weekend and that is what I had on hand at home.

Ophthalmic dermatome is in green. I had eruptions and pain throughout the green area, as well as the adjacent dermatomes, but thankfully not on my nose.

More eruptions began to appear on Day 2 and the original lesion grew larger in size and began to fill with purulent fluid.  My eyebrow and the skin on my scalp and forehead became increasingly more tender to the slightest touch and the pains coming from in my head grew more intense, more frequent and affected a larger area.  I continued taking the Zhong Gan Ling (8 tabs every 2 hours) plus Yin Chiao (6 tabs every 2 hours) and I applied an herbal compress to the lesions on my forehead twice that day.  I soaked gauze in a decoction of Ban Lan Gen, Ma Chi Xian, Huang Qin, and Pu Gong Ying, wrung it out just a bit and stuck it to the lesions on my forehead (it just stayed there as it dried). I occasionally added more herbal liquid to the gauze with a dropper.

By Day 3, the pain had gotten pretty damn intense from my upper eyelid throughout the rest of the dermatome. It was not constant, though.  I also developed lymphadenopathy of the lymph nodes on the left side of my neck – it hurt like hell to turn my head because it stretched the tender and swollen nodes. I switched my herbal prescription to Zhong Gan Ling (still 8 tabs every 2 hours) plus Plum Flower brand Long Dan Xie Gan Wan (8 pills every 2 hours) since more of the Gallbladder Channel was becoming affected.   I feared for the health of my eyes, though no eruptions were yet appearing on my nose (thank goodness!).  But it was only Day 3; I was aware that new lesions could continue to erupt for the first week plus the sharp shooting pains through my skull were getting worse which meant the condition was not slowing down despite my herbal efforts.  Time to do acupuncture.  I had needled myself plenty of times in the past. Though it was never comfortable to needle my own face or eyes, I could tolerate it. But this time, when I placed the needle into tender Yu Yao (center of my eyebrow) I almost passed out from the pain.  My nerves were so raw and inflamed. I cried in response to placing 3 of the needles. But within about 30 seconds, 90% of the intense sharp shooting pains were gone.  THIRTY SECONDS!  I was absolutely amazed and it was absolutely worth the discomfort of performing acupuncture on myself.

Day 4: More pain and more eruptions on my scalp (fortunately my hair covered them).

Although the acupuncture treatment took so much pain away, it returned overnight, though not as intense as the day before.  The condition was still progressing despite my best efforts.  I have seen enough cases of shingles to speculate that my case would have progressed just the same even if I had opted to take pharmaceutical antivirals. But I needed to be more aggressive in my treatment.  I had my boyfriend do indirect moxa (using a smokeless moxa pole) in addition to my own acupuncture treatment (surrounding the dragon on the lesions with needles pointing inward; ah shi points on my scalp and forehead for pain; and then LIV2, St44, GB44 or 43, LI 11, LI4, and TW2 to Clear Heat and Move Qi in the affected channels).  I think perhaps smokey moxa would have been more effective, but I didn’t think of it at the time.  I was very tired and my thinking was becoming a bit foggy.  I cancelled the rest of my work week.  I needed to heal and I couldn’t see patients in this condition.

On Day 5 I encountered a complication – I developed an acute allergic reaction to a heavy-duty cleanser I had used the day before at the office without gloves (stupid stupid stupid!). I woke with symmetrical dermatitis on my hands that spread to my neck, groin and feet – bright red papules on an erythematous base that were intensely itchy.  Insane itching coupled with the now debilitating paroxysmal shooting pains through my skull and the painfully tender eruptions on my forehead made me miserable. I took Benadryl to get the allergic reaction under control (it stopped it in its tracks but I think it consequently retarded my body’s ability to heal the shingles).  At this time I also developed facial edema around both eyes (this is common for ophthalmic zoster). I had a colleague treat me with acupuncture and I also saw a specialist who did lymphatic drainage therapy to help with the lymphedema.  I switched to granule herbs:

Ban Lan Gen  15g  (Clear Heat, Resolve toxins, antiviral against Herpes zoster)
Da Qing Ye  9  (Clear Heat, Resolve Toxins, antiviral)
Huang Qin  9 (for the eruptions)
Jin Yin Hua  12 (for the eruptions and dermatitis)
Lian Qiao  12 (for the eruptions and dermatitis)
Ma Chi Xian  12 (Clear Heat, Resolve Toxins, antiviral)
Chi Shao  9 (to Move Blood and help with the lymphadenopathy)
Yi Yi Ren 18 (for the facial edema)
Di Fu Zi 12 (for the facial edema and itching)
 

Day 6: getting crusty

I have been taking 18 grams per day (6 g TID) of this formula and still am because it is helping significantly.  By Day 6, the eruptions began crusting over and getting quite itchy.  I did Plum Blossom (seven star needling) on my scalp to improve blood flow to reduce itching.   I kept the ones on my forehead covered with gauze to prevent myself from scratching in my sleep.  I think they would have healed faster if they had been exposed to full air the entire time, but they looked gross and so I kept them covered until they fully crusted over.  Three rogue lesions appeared on my back but they were small, itched only mildly and had no associated nerve pain.  This is not considered disseminated shingles (20 or more lesions outside of the affected dermatome is considered disseminated). On Day 6 I had a freak-out.  I felt so uncomfortable and irritable.  I lost all patience and my nerves were completely on edge (literally and figuratively).  I screamed and cried for about 5 minutes when my printer refused to scan an important document and I couldn’t figure out how to fix the problem.  That’s when I gave up – not on my treatment, but on the idea that I could get any work done while I had this condition.  I gave myself acupuncture, took my herbs, and went to bed for 3 days.  I should have done that sooner.

Day 8: mostly scabbed-over but still some edema around my eyes

No new lesions appeared after Day 7 and the pain was 90% gone (and stayed gone), but I still itched a lot.  On Day 8 I still had facial edema so I slept semi-upright in a lounge chair – the herbs cleared much of the edema and remaining upright when I slept prevented it from re-accumulating overnight.  Today is Day 10.  My skin is still a bit tender to the touch where the lesions are, though they are mostly all scabbed over and healing.  The ones on my scalp are healing the fastest, though they are still quite itchy. I get only an occasional twinge of pain and it is very superficial (nothing shooting through my skull). The lymph nodes at the anterior left and posterior left aspect of my neck are half the size they were a few days ago and significantly less tender. I am continuing to take my granule formula (18g per day) and give myself acupuncture daily.  My eye was never affected (thank goodness!) but I will see the ophthalmologist to be sure there is no intraocular pressure building or other symptoms I can’t feel.

In about a week, once all the eruptions have healed further and the neuralgia is (hopefully) 100% resolved, I will alter my herbal formula to better addresses my underlying Spleen Qi Xu and Liver Blood Xu and will include herbs to Move Blood (to prevent scarring).  Although my account of my experience with shingles sounds rather awful, it really has resolved relatively quickly. However, I made 2 significant mistakes in the diagnosis and treatment of my own shingles:  I misdiagnosed my case as Fire in the Liver and Gallbladder Channels (as opposed to Damp Heat in the Spleen; both discussed in the next post) and I underestimated the potential severity of my case.  I assessed my patient (myself) based solely on my assumption that I was currently a healthy 39-year-old with a strong constitution, but I neglected 2 very important pieces of information in my patient’s history.  Firstly, when I had chicken pox as a kid, it was a very severe case.  It was spread over my entire body, including my eyeballs.   Does this set me up for a more severe case of shingles?  I am not sure, but I should have considered it.  Secondly, my face seems to react quite extremely to any acute skin issues I have.  When I had chicken pox, my face swelled.  When I got poison ivy at age 12, my face swelled and stayed swollen for over a week. When a bee stung my finger, my face swelled even though I am not actually allergic to bees.  And when I got a rash around my mouth from allergic contact dermatitis, my eyes also got an itchy rash around them when it was at its worst.  I should have taken this info into consideration at the onset of my shingles – perhaps I would have been more aggressive with my herbal treatment and maybe started acupuncture a day or 2 sooner.  Maybe it would have made no difference in the course of the illness, but I should not have overlooked it.

We will look at how to assess and treat shingles (not just my case) in the next post –  Shingles Part II:  TCM Differentiation and Treatment.

Tags: chicken pox, Chinese herbal medicine, dermatology, herpes zoster, ophthalmic zoster, shingles, varicella zoster, viral skin infection

Categories: Chinese Medicine, Herbs for Skin Care, Herpes & Shingles, Rashes

About the Author ()

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. She is the owner of Zi Zai Dermatology (hand crafted herbal skin care products) and maintains a private practice (Acupuncture of the Rockies) in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Comments (26)

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  1. Bonnie says:

    Interesting supposition–I had a very mild case of shingles–both because I happened to get in as soon as the first lesion erupted (couldn’t open my eye and I didn’t know why it was so sudden! and the lesion was hidden in my eyebrow) but I also had a very mild case of chicken pox. I probably got half the number of lesions that the other kids in the neighborhood got.

  2. Diana Moll says:

    wow, what a journey….heal fast.

  3. Terry Fox says:

    Egad! I’m glad to hear that you’re making a relatively swift recovery.

    Thank you for sharing your pain and educating us through your struggle.

    • Thanks, Terry. I am doing great again. Have you treated shingles much in your career? Acupuncture is THE BEST option for pain relief from shingles. We can help so many people who suffer from shingles pain…we must educate people so shingles patients come for acupuncture treatment right away!

  4. Barbara Seaman says:

    I came down with shingles the last week of January. An area near my spine was very sensitive and just felt “funny”. The next day it had moved around under my arm. Since I had had the shingles shot several years ago, I never considered shingles until a friend told me he had the shot also and had come down with it. Still no rash, but on the 5th day I went to the doctor and he diagnosed valtrex. We were hoping since I had no rash I would have a slight case of it. The next day I woke up with the rash and the pain. The rash itself is not painful but looks awful from my spine all the way around to under my breast. And the pain is horrible. I have had a steroid shot, a week of Prednisone pills, neontrin, loritab, valtrex. I am starting my 4th week of shingles and maybe today the pain is slightly better finally. I have also had pain in my ear, throat, jaw so assumed the cranial nerve was affected too. Today my eye is feeling funny and if anything shows up there, I will immediately go to the doctor. I’m not brave enough for acupuncture and live in a small town, and doubt if we even have anyone who does that or knows anything about herbs treatment. So I will have to stick with medicine. But I really think there is no cure or treatment other than relieving the symptoms. I am 68 yrs old.

    • Oh my dear – I am sorry to hear this. I highly recommend acupuncture and do not wait any longer. Shingles that lasts 4 weeks or more is very likely to lead to chronic post-herpetic neuralgia. The slight discomfort (if any at all) from acupuncture will be worth it for the potential pain-relief it can offer. And yes, it is true that there is no cure for this, but acupuncture treatment will reduce the risk of developing chronic PHN (it is not a guarantee, but it is a good option). And I bet if you look in the phonebook or do a Google search, you will find an acupuncturist nearby. Good luck to you! Don’t wait any longer to get more help.

  5. jay hester says:

    I had all the same symptoms but did no treatment and it healed on its own. It happens to me after periods of stress seems like. It starts with tenderness under scalp then a few days later small eruptions on forehead. It always heals on it own with no treatment. I guess my immune system kicks in and stops it. I did have chicken pox. I always wondered what it was ,,,Now I know. Thanks

    • Yes – shingles can recur during times of stress and then remit. I have several patients who just get tingling at the location of their previous shingles rash whenever they are stressed or when their immune system is taxed (i.e. when they have a common cold or flu). They often do not break out in the rash anymore; just tingling for a few days and then it resolves on its own. Some patients, myself included, take Chinese herbs immediately when we recognize that funny sensation that even precedes the tingling because we don’t want to take any chances that the rash breaks out again!

      • jay hester says:

        Once that funny sensation starts,, for me a narrow sensation under the scalp from the top to the hair line on my head,,, I know it must run its course,, ending with the break out on my forehead. It will take a week or ten days. I dont think your treatments do any good what so ever. It just has to run its course. Im no doctor but thats been my experience. Have you tried not doing anything and compair results?

        • Oh yes, in some people, if shingles is left untreated it can lead to chronic post-herpetic neuralgia. In those unfortunate patients, they have skin sensitivity, tingling and or sharp nerve pain all the time. It can be very debilitating in some cases. But in others, like yourself, there are no lasting effects. Be glad you are in the latter group :)

          • jay hester says:

            thank you but I now have a chronic stiff neck, and pain in the muscles behind my ears,and base of my skull. Is this related to this condition? I thought it was a pinched nerve . I have had this stiff neck for about a year now, I’ll be 60 years old in december. Its hard for me to rotate my head, and at night I have that muscle pain. I can live with it ,,, just annoying. I was always very active and worked outdoors, doing the work of two men. Now I sit and watch TV alot. Thank you for your info on this.

          • Well, without examining you, I have no way of determining what is the source of the stiff neck. But one of the most effective treatments for stiff necks (regardless of the cause) is acupuncture. And I’m not just saying that because I am an acupuncturist :) I would highly recommend it for you. Give it 4 to 6 visits. I bet you notice improvement after one or 2 but the results get better with a few more treatments to make more lasting improvement.

          • jay hester says:

            ok I belive in acuputure,, but dont have insurance or the money to do it. My mom used to do it to herself. Thank you so much for info. I will chk out my local acupuncturist.

          • See if you have any “community” style clinics near you. They are usually the same cost as a copay. And it’ll help even if you didn’t “believe” in it. Best wishes.

  6. irene says:

    I am just getting over shingles, had it on my back and round my tummy, the pills I had made me
    Itch all over, now im finished them I have started itching all over again but more on my forehead but there are no spots, its driving me mad, anyone have any idea.

    • I do not know what pills you took as you do not mention the name of the medication. It is possible you were having a drug reaction to the meds. Depending on the half-life of the drug, the itching (pruritis) should stop once the substance is out of your body.

  7. Niea says:

    What a bunch of bunk. You would have gotten better in the same amount of time even without the herbs. If the herbs actually worked they would be called….wait for it….western medicine. And there is no scientific proof acupuncture does anything at all aside from placebo. The mind can be wonderful at deluding itself. And curing yourself for heat in the spleen? hogwash.

    TIL: that a person can get a degree in ‘chinese medicine’ and acupuncture. what a joke.

    • Yikes. Why so angry? Traditional Chinese Medicine has been a valid and effective system of predicting, preventing, and treating disease for close to 5,000 and it is still used today (and growing in popularity as well as applications). TCM is being integrated into western medical facilities because of its remarkable effectiveness. My friend and colleague is the head of herbal studies at Johns Hopkins University (ever heard of that institution?). TCm uses terminology that differs from western medical terminology (that is why we capitalize the name of organs such as the Spleen – we are referring to certain functions of the spleen, not the entire organ itself.) Just because you do not understand it does not mean you should be so quick to dismiss it as bunk.

      In fact, if you did any research, you would know that science continues to catch up with nature and they actually just released a study showing that acupuncture points can now be seen on CT scans: http://www.healthcmi.com/Acupuncture-Continuing-Education-News/1230-new-ct-scans-reveal-acupuncture-points

      Also, there are many double blind scientific studies that show acupuncture and Chinese herbs are as or more effective than current western medical treatments for certain conditions, like this recent study on arthritis treatment: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140414191455.htm

      I believe there are many options for medical treatment and the best (i.e. most effective with fewest side-effects) treatment depends on many factors such as type of disease, duration of the illness, constitution of the individual, lifestyle, and more. Maybe someday you will wake up and open up your mind to things that you do not yet understand. By the way, why did you waste your valuable time reading this blog? It clearly is labeled “Traditional Chinese Dermatology” and you clearly have negative opinions on this form of medicine. I not only had to have a bachelor’s degree to get into graduate school for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Then I completed a 4-year degree program. Then I did an internship at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Nanjing, P.R.C. then I spent the next 15 years (and counting) using the medical knowledge I gained to help improve the lives of THOUSANDS of patients. Have you devoted many years of study and clinical (a.k.a. real world) practice to any particular subject? Do you do anything to help others who are suffering? Or do you just waste your time trolling the internet to see who you can insult?

  8. Helen says:

    In response to neia – I don’t know whether I put all my faith in traditional medicines of other cultures either but I don’t debunk it and CERTAINLY won’t rag another clinician for their paradigm if it is included in medical and nursing degrees and yes, at least where I live, complementary therapies are explored to a lesser extent along with pharmacology papers. If it worked for the author of the article, or at least put her in a better place mentally to deal with it, who are you to say that there is only one truth? Next thing you know you’ll be saying that post amputation nerve endings can’t possibly refer back scrambled pain messages of telescoped or phantom limbs? Ironic that one of the most effective treatments for that nerve condition is MIRROR TREATMENT. Tricking the brain into seeing two whole limbs which somehow soothes pain, and more effectively than ongoing analgesia. What are your research credentials btw? You would surely have to have at least a masters or likely a PhD to write with such sweeping conviction? I would love to peer review something written by you Neia.

    • Thank you for your response, Helen. I appreciate your viewpoint.

      For All future responders, let’s keep this thread on track: Traditional Chinese Medicine in the treatment of dermatological diseases. Or at least let’s keep it about dermatology and skin ailments. This site is intended to offer information in order to help people find solutions to their skin problems. No further need to defend any form of medicine here. If it is not supportive, or helpful in solving a problem or figuring out the cause of symptoms, then it need not be said here.

  9. Brandon says:

    DMSO it burns when applied, which is a good sign to me and feels as if its killing the son of a bitch. DMSO applied every day, from 7 – 14 days completely destroys mine; and my face actually looks better in that spot.

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