The treatment could be an alternative for people who can't take the antiviral drugs usually used to treat shingles, says researcher Mohammed Suleiman, MD, a radiation oncologist at Hospital of Sion in Switzerland.
Each year in the United States, shingles strikes at least 850,000 people. Although children and younger adults can get it, most victims are over 60 and their immune systems have begun to wane. By age 85, one in two people will have had a bout. Other susceptible people are those with diseases that weaken the immune system or people who are taking medications that might suppress the immune system.
Shingles itself comes from reactivation of the chickenpox virus. The virus travels down nerve fibers to cause an itchy, painful skin rash that follows along the particular nerve in a band-like distribution called a dermatome.
When the rash goes away, the pain usually goes with it. But for 12% to 15% of people the pain remains. Doctors call this postherpetic neuralgia -- a truly debilitating condition that can last for months or years.
Some antiviral drugs such as Zovirax, Valtrex, and Famvir have been shown to reduce the duration of postherpetic neuralgia if begun within the first three days of the appearance of tingling or rash, Suleiman tells WebMD.
But not all people can take the drugs. People with kidney problems can't. Nor can a lot of elderly persons -- the very people whom shingles is most likely to strike, he says.
That's where radiation comes in.