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Fun with shingles

Shingles is no fun.  It's a nasty disease caused by the chickenpox virus.  Herpes zoster or VZV for Varicella zoster virus.  If you catch it for the first time, you get sick with chickenpox.  As you recover from chickenpox, your immune system eliminates the virus from most locations, but it stays alive in your nerves. 

After you get better from chickenpox, the virus lives on in your nerves.  Specifically in the ganglia next to your spinal cord (dorsal root ganglion) or maybe the Gasseri ganglion in the base of your skull.

If the virus stays dormant, all is fine.  But if you're unlucky, when you're tired and your immune system is weakened for any reason, it wakes up and makes you sick again, only this time it's not chickenpox but shingles. 

When reactivated, the virus travels along the nerves towards the skin surface which eventually breaks out in fierce red rashes.  It attacks the nerve fibres along the way, causing severe debilitating pain even in seemingly unaffected areas. 

Based on recent experience, I think shingles is one of the worst things you could possibly come down with.  It's tenacious, it's nasty, it's ugly (I borrowed these images from 2 sites) and worst of all, you can NEVER eliminate it from inside you.

Shingles is a modern medical mystery.  Western doctors don't seem to have the best treatment methods at their disposal even today.  I don't know why, but Chinese physicians can deal with shingles far better, not just prescribing painkillers but providing the cure itself.  By 'cure', I mean the rash stops spreading and starts crusting quickly.  Yet no one really knows how they do it.  Not even Western-educated doctors here can explain it.  But no one discounts the fact that traditional Chinese treatment works, even if it seems like hocus-pocus. 

Indeed, the treatment starts off like a ritual - a joss stick is lit and prayer is silently said.  (photo below taken from Pattaya Gogos)  The healer then use the lit end of the joss stick (or the flame of a burning twist of paper) to search for the 'eyes' of the Snake, using her trained eye to follow its path.  (The Chinese refer to the condition as 'Snake Growth', possibly because the patient experiences a slithery sensation on the skin, and of course, the rash follows a coiling path very much like the trail of a snake.)

When she locates the Snake's eyes, she taps them quickly, a strange one-two dotting action known as Catching the Snake.  In my case, I hadn't expected her to actually touch me with the lit ends of the joss sticks, though I sat in trepidation, feeling the heat as they hovered close to my skin.  But when she suddenly tapped twice on my forehead, I felt the half-second sting of the burning joss stick on my rash, followed by a sudden creepy-crawly sensation that was not pain or tingling.  It felt like the death throes of a whipworm lashing out in agony across my forehead, scalp and temples.  I am not kidding - it felt like a centipede was running across my head.  A centipede on coke.

After the had 'blinded' that Snake, she said, "You'll be fine now.  It will stop growing.  The spots will dry up and crust over and turn black before they fall off.  I'll give you something to put on the rash at night."  (I was amazed by her confidence.)  Then, from a large pot, she spooned some dark green stuff into a small plastic container for me to take home.  The green stuff was a concoction of herbs, crushed and mixed with alcohol spirits, and some sulphur too, from the smell of it.  Later that night, my mother used a cotton bud to apply it on my forehead.  It had been chilled in the fridge, so it felt cool and soothing at first.  Then it stung quite badly and I got the slithery sensation all over my head again, as if the Snake was thrashing around up there.  But the pain's grip was loosened that night and I could sleep better.  By next morning, I felt so much better.

The healer had also given me 16 gai-duk (poison altering) tablets, which I was to take twice a day, two tablets at a time.  The label showed it is manufactured in a Beijing medicine factory.  Very powerful stuff for neutralising and expelling heat toxins in the body, which is believed to trigger heat disorders like chickenpox and shingles.  The
gai-duk pills were very effective - I started farting something terrible, and moved my bowels three times a day, with horrible unusually noxious dark stools.  My armpits got sweaty even in 16°C air-conditioning and emitted an unbelievably aggressive stink!

So that was my nasty experience with shingles, which is also known locally as penyakit kayap or Cacar Ular.  The Malays have their own set of pantang-larang (lore-based abstinences like old wives' tales), but the following are the ones I'd like to remember in case, God forbid, I develop shingles again!  They say that forewarned is forearmed, so I'm writing it all down for myself.  Maybe it might help some other poor soul who comes down with shingles like I just did.

1.  Seek treatment early, whether you choose Western or traditional healing.  The doctor can give you antiviral meds (like Acyclovir cream or tablets) but you heal faster if they are taken at an early stage.  Same advice given by Chinese physicians.
2.  Don't get caught in the rain.  Don't go out of your house while recuperating.
3.  Do not stand in front of a mirror, or look in it, because the rash will spread.
4.  Only apply the tincture of green herbs twice in the evening - once at around 6:00 PM and the second time, just before going to bed.  If you apply it during daytime, the Snake will 'seize up', causing a lot of discomfort.
5.  Before applying any medicine, clean the rash with thick Oolong tea, which you may keep chilled in the fridge (just like the green tincture).
6.  If blisters spread to the scalp, wash your hair with mild shampoo, then rinse with water boiled with leaves of the starfruit (carambola) tree.  (photo taken from University of Wisconsin) This will stop the itch and dry up the blisters fast.
7.  Stay away from the sizzling sound of frying.  No greasy food allowed anyway.
8.  Foods to avoid for 60 days after the onset of shingles: Dark soy sauce, chicken, nuts, fish, eggs, shrimp, squid, crab, shellfish, and fried food.  At the risk of permanent dark scars, why take a chance?
9.  Fruits recommended by my Chinese physician for bringing down 'heatiness' due to hot weather, lack of sleep, stress, overexertion and inadequate water intake: Dragonfruit, papaya, and pineapple.  (to be eaten every week, if possible)


I know all that sounds ridiculous, but when I was in pain, it helped.  Very strange and inexplicable, but I will not make fun of traditional healers again, no matter how I may have felt about them in the past.  Dad says the knowledge passed down by generations was gained from bitter experience. 
In the end, I believe traditional Chinese treatment must be a combination of superstition and experience.  It's taken thousands of years, so what is tried and true is tried and true.  If it works, I won't think too much into it.  Some things just can't be explained.  And it worked really well in my case.  I'm very grateful to the physicians who cured me!





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