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Notable Notes
December 2016

The Folklore of Herpes Zoster

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of General Medicine, National University Hospital, Singapore
JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(12):1347. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.0070

Herpes zoster, or, colloquially, shingles, is a common dermatological condition characterized by painful vesicles arranged in dermatomal belts. Although herpes zoster is generally straightforward to treat in modern days, the therapies for zoster in folk medicine were often varied and interesting. This Notable Note explores some of the fascinating treatments for zoster in the past.

In British folk medicine, zoster was treated on the Isle of Wight1 with an ointment made from the verdigris scraped off from church bells. This green pigment containing copper acetate would have caused allergic contact dermatitis and greenish discoloration of the skin. In 17th century Ireland1, blood from a black cat was regarded as a cure. In Devon, the leaves of the blackberry were used as poultice while the juice of common houseleek was regarded as curative in parts of Scottish Highlands and Essex.1 In New England, the blood of a completely black hen was said to be a cure—this and its other variants were frequently recorded remedies in North American folk medicine.1