Shingles is a painful condition caused by the herpes zoster virus. Because about 1 million people in the United States get shingles yearly, it's important to know how to treat the condition and what things to avoid with shingles.
If you've had chickenpox, you're susceptible to shingles, and your risk increases as you get older. While antiviral drugs may mitigate your symptoms while you have shingles, your diet is important too. Foods to avoid with shingles include low-nutrient foods and those with the amino acid l-arginine.
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Shingles is a painful virus. Avoid foods with the amino acid l-arginine, which can encourage replication of the virus, and low-nutrient foods, which weaken the immune system.
About Shingles Infections
Shingles is caused by a type of herpes virus that affects the nerves. It causes pain, tingling and burning of the skin as well as the development of itchiness and blisters in the skin. The official name is the varicella zoster virus, the very same virus that causes chickenpox.
If you had chickenpox in your youth, the virus remains dormant in your body. The virus sits in the nerve cells; when it becomes reactivated, it appears as shingles. In most people, however, the virus stays dormant and doesn't awaken to manifest as shingles.
Read more: What Does Herpes Look Like?
If you have shingles, you can pass the varicella zoster virus to another person and cause chickenpox if that person has never had chickenpox or never received the chickenpox vaccine. Shingles itself, however, is not contagious.
Research published in Open Forums in Infectious Diseases in September 2016 identified specific risk factors for shingles development that include stress, depression and sleep disturbances. Diet is not a risk factor for shingles, but what you eat can affect how the infection progresses and affects you.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies the symptoms of shingles as:
- Painful tingling and itching of the skin
- Eruption of painful blisters or sores, often on one side of the body (usually the face or torso)
- Fever and chills
- Headache and upset stomach
Treatment for Shingles
Shingles can't be cured, but it can be managed with antiviral drugs such as acyclovir, valacyclovir or famciclovir. See your doctor as soon as you start to notice any symptoms of shingles. The sooner you start these medications, the greater the likelihood of shortening the attacks and decreasing the severity of your case.
Antiviral drugs also decrease your risk of developing postherpetic neuralgia, chronic pain that can last for months or years after the initial outbreak of shingles.
You may also be prescribed anti-inflammatory corticosteroids, such as prednisone, for shingles treatment, especially if shingles has affected the eyes or other facial nerves.
Lifestyle adaptations also help you deal with a shingles outbreak. Relaxation and stress reduction, gentle exercise like walking and the application of cool, damp clothes on the blisters also helps.
Shingles blisters scab over in seven to 10 days and fully clear up on their own in about two to four weeks.
A Shingles Diet Helps
The shingles virus thrives when your immune system isn't strong. What you eat can affect the strength of your immunity, explains the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutrients to include in your diet to boost your immune system when you have a shingles outbreak include:
- Vitamin A from carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, red peppers, eggs and apricots
- Vitamin C from citrus fruits, tomatoes and papaya
- Vitamin E and zinc from sunflower seeds and fortified cereals
People with shingles may also benefit from eating more foods with vitamin B6, folate, iron and selenium.
Foods to avoid with shingles include those that degrade your immune system. Examples are fast and fried foods, anything high in saturated fat and processed foods. Skip the drive-through and head home to a homemade meal of grilled chicken, steamed broccoli and sweet potatoes.
Other foods to avoid with shingles are those with lots of added sugar and those made with white flour. You might be tempted to help yourself feel better with sweet treats, such as cookies or doughnuts, but these foods have no notable nutrients and do nothing to boost your body's ability to fight the shingles infection.
Read more: The Effects of Eating Too Many Carbs
The Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine published a paper in October 2017 detailing that plant products are a powerful nutritional resource when it comes to boosting immune cells and their complex molecules. Plant foods, including leafy greens and juicy fruits, have valuable anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and angiogenic activity.
Avoid Arginine Foods
It's long been known that the amino acid arginine stimulates the replication of herpes-like viruses as shown in a landmark 1981 study in Chemotherapy.
Frontiers in Microbiology explains in a paper published in October 2018 that virus replication depends on the availability of amino acids, particularly arginine. Research doesn't definitively show that temporarily adhering to a restricted arginine diet reduces severity of viruses, including shingles however. That doesn't mean you can't try limiting your intake of certain products to discourage the proliferation of shingles.
Arginine is a component of many healthy foods, including chicken, fish, dairy products, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Reduce your intake of these foods and boost your intake of healthy produce to minimize your exposure to arginine. Chocolate is also a source; leave it off the menu during your shingles outbreak.
Read more: Foods High in L-Arginine
You don't have to cut out these foods altogether, just limit their role in your meals.
If you take l-arginine supplements or medications with the amino acid, ask your doctor about stopping use during your shingles outbreak. Some people take l-arginine for heart and blood vessel conditions, erectile dysfunction and improved athletic performance.
L-Lysine as a Possible Solution
L-lysine is another amino acid that is an important component of protein. Your body can't make lysine, so you have to get it from food or supplements. The significance of lysine is that it may inhibit the growth of herpes viruses, such as cold sores and genital herpes. The varicella zoster virus is a herpes strain.
An article published by the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center explains that the amino acid has antiviral effects that block the activity of arginine. It's not clear that lysine would help ease the duration or symptoms of shingles, but eating more foods with lysine could help.
Foods rich in lysine include eggs, tofu, spirulina, fenugreek seeds (a spice) and brewer's yeast.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Shingles: Hope Through Research"
- Open Forum Infectious Diseases: "Risk Factors for Herpes Zoster Among Adults"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Shingles"
- Chemotherapy: "Relation of Arginine-lysine Antagonism to Herpes Simplex Growth in Tissue Culture"
- Frontiers in Microbiology: "Identification of Amino Acids Essential for Viral Replication in the HCMV Helicase-Primase Complex"
- Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine: "Understanding Nutrition and Immunity in Disease Management"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Protect Your Health With Immune-Boosting Nutrition"
- MedlinePlus: "L-Arginine"
- Milton S. Hershey Medical Center: "L-Lysine"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.