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A Sweet Salve For Shingles?

Flickr – Creative Commons

A preliminary study done in partnership with the University of Colorado-Denver suggests honey might be effective in treating a viral disease—shingles.

Growing up in Pakistan, Aamir Shahzad of the University of Vienna remembers a close family member coming down with shingles. Later, as a physician in rural parts of the country, he encountered it frequently.

“I noticed many immunocompromised and elderly people suffer with shingles,” wrote Shahzad in an email.

The painful rash that characterizes shingles, or herpes zoster, is caused by reactivation of cells infected with Varicella zoster virus, the virus responsible for chickenpox.

The disease often develops into blisters and can cause neurological complications and even death in rare cases.

Credit Aamir Shahzad/University of Vienna
University of Vienna
Aamir Shahzad (left), with Randall Cohrs at the University of Colorado-Denver.

In Pakistan and many developing nations, the standard antiviral drugs either aren’t available or are too expensive, and few get the vaccine.

Shahzad wanted to find a cheaper alternative, so he sought out an expert on shingles, Randall Cohrs, a professor of neurology at University of Colorado-Denver. Cohrs invited Shahzad to come to Denver and work in his lab to test the ability of honey to fight the virus.  

When Shahzad grew cells infected with virus in the presence of either clover or Manuka honey, he saw a reduction in the amount of virus. The results are preliminary, but Shahzad suspects honey may have previously undocumented antiviral properties.

“As honey contains various substances which might act synergistically or might contain an unknown active antiviral agent, we are planning to check the difference in antiviral activity of honey from different geographical locations and ultimately to find out honey’s exact mechanism of action,” wrote Shahzad.

Several hurdles remain, including clinical and safety tests. Notably, the highest concentrations of honey Shahzad tested also proved toxic to cells.

Shahzad cautions that honey should never replace more effective antivirals in the United States, but in places like his home country of Pakistan, it may prove to be a salve for more than a sore throat.

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