Can You Use L-Lysine Supplements to Treat Shingles?

L-lysine for shingles

If you’re among the growing number of Americans affected by shingles, you may decide to take L-lysine supplements, a long-standing natural remedy.

Lysine is a naturally occurring building block for protein. This makes it a necessary part of a balanced diet. L-lysine refers to the dietary supplement. It’s thought that L-lysine can help relieve cold sores.

Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) causes cold sores. HSV-1 is under the same umbrella of viruses as the virus that causes shingles. This virus is called the varicella-zoster virus. It’s the same virus that causes chickenpox.

After a bout of chickenpox, this virus is dormant in the body. The virus can then reemerge, usually years later, as shingles.

While L-lysine is said to relieve cold sores, there’s no evidence to support its treatment of shingles.

What are the benefits of L-lysine?

An L-lysine regimen may prevent or reduce the occurrence of cold sores. If you already have a cold sore, L-lysine may help heal the sore more quickly.

The protein-building amino acid may also aid in digestion. It’s said to help your gastrointestinal tract absorb calcium. This added calcium can contribute to new bone tissue.

Your body doesn’t produce lysine, so you must consume it through the foods you eat. If your diet is lacking in lysine, you may have a compromised immune system. You may also develop higher levels of stress and anxiety. One 2004 study found that a diet rich in lysine can reduce these levels.

What the research says

If you eat a balanced diet that includes red meat, fish, and dairy products, you probably consume enough lysine. It’s also widely advertised as a dietary supplement. In the body, lysine knocks out another protein building block, or amino acid, called arginine. To boost the effect of lysine, avoid arginine-rich foods such as nuts and seeds.

A large review concluded that L-lysine had no reliable effect on cold sores. In a smaller study (conducted in 1983) that seemed to show an effect, participants took an average of just over 900 milligrams of the supplement daily for six months. At this or even higher levels, L-lysine appears to have no toxic effects.

Whether L-lysine is likely to work on reducing the intensity or duration of shingles symptoms is a separate question.

“There’s not a shred of evidence that it works,” says Aaron Glatt, MD, chairman of the department of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital and spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“It’s probably not dangerous, but I wouldn’t tell someone to spend money on it.”

If you’d like to explore L-lysine as a treatment option for shingles, make an appointment with your doctor. You can discuss whether it’s the right treatment for you.

Risks and warnings

More research is needed to determine the short- and long-term effects of taking L-lysine supplements. A number of side effects have been reported with L-lysine ingestion, although it isn’t clear whether they’re consistent.

Possible side effects include:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain

If you’re taking L-lysine supplements and experience any adverse or unusual symptoms, you should discontinue use. Meet with your doctor to assess your symptoms and determine whether it’s safe for you to continue taking these supplements.

Other treatments for shingles

Traditionally, systemic antiviral drugs are used to treat shingles. These drugs are for people who are otherwise healthy and who meet any one of these conditions:

  • are at least 50 years old
  • have moderate or severe pain
  • have a moderate or severe rash
  • have a rash outside the trunk

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved three antiviral drugs for reducing the intensity and frequency of pain associated with shingles. This includes acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir.

Because these three drugs are considered very safe, they may be prescribed even to people who don’t meet one of the four criteria to reduce the chance of postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN refers to a prolonged period of pain that occurs after your shingles rash has cleared.

You should start antiviral treatment as soon as possible. Ideally, you should begin treatment no more than three days after the rash appears. It’s possible to start an antiviral beyond three days, but you may not experience the same effects.

Antiviral treatment can generally reduce shingles pain to a manageable level. Your doctor may also prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen, to relieve pain. Depending on your symptoms, they may prescribe an opioid pain medication for maximum relief.

Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths may help relieve itching.

The bottom line

Shingles is a common occurrence among people who have had chickenpox. Although complications from shingles are rare, they can be serious if they do occur. If you think you have shingles, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Although trying a home remedy such a L-lysine may not be harmful, it may not beneficial either. Seeing a doctor for care can offer several advantages over letting shingles run its course untreated or treating it with alternative therapies.

Glatt says that prescription antiviral drugs can ease the acute symptoms of shingles. The drugs can also reduce the amount of time that you’re contagious, and help prevent or reduce nerve pain afterward.

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