It started with a little ache, the kind that shows up right before the flu bug. I popped Advil for a few days and tried to get some extra sleep. I didn’t have time to be sick.
But when I woke up that Saturday morning, it was apparent my body was not going to cooperate.
I felt like a ton of bricks had been dumped on my chest. My back itched like crazy. I had a headache the size of Montana. I was weak and tired. And what was this weird burning sensation that wrapped around my right upper torso?
I lifted my pajama top gingerly and caught the first horrifying glimpse of it. A red, angry rash with little welts. I grabbed a mirror and looked at my back. More of the same. Maybe something I ate?
Every minute that passed in the waiting room at the walk-in clinic was excruciating. By the time my name was called, I felt like I was in a fire pit. All I wanted to do was claw at that strange-looking rash.
“Oh, oh,” the doctor said after one quick look. “You got shingles. No fun.”
“But I’m too young!” I whined. Turns out, I wasn’t. The risk increases after age 60, but the virus can attack younger people as well. If you had chicken pox at some point in your life, you’re susceptible to shingles. About 1 million Americans get shingles every year – 1 in 3 Americans will experience it during their lifetime.
Visions of four-time Super Bowl quarterback Terry Bradshaw started dancing in my head. You’ve probably seen his TV spots promoting the vaccine.
“When you play football for a long time like I did, you’re gonna learn to deal with a lot of pain,” he says. “But it’s nothing like the pain that shingles causes! It was like being blindsided by some linebacker.”
Why so painful? Simply put, the blisters cause nerve inflammation. If you catch it early enough, there’s an antiviral medication that prevents it from worsening. Too late for me. I had ignored those early warning signs.
Here are two tips I would highly recommend. Do not, I repeat, do not go to Google and search for images of shingles. And stay away from announcing your plight on social media.
“Shingles. Really?” I posted on Facebook. Within minutes, my newsfeed was lit up with friends weighing in with everything from “Sending lots and lots of prayers your way” to homeopathic rituals. Mostly, though, they were aghast and sympathetic. And so grateful it was me and not them.
Dr. Vince Perron, a Tampa internist who specializes in geriatrics, says shingles come in third on the list of fears of his patients, behind Alzheimer’s and strokes. They can appear anywhere on the body, following a “dermatome” (an area of skin mainly supplied by a single spinal nerve) and vary in degree of nastiness.
“Some cases are so mild that the person doesn’t even know it’s there,” he says. The worst scenario: Shingles in the eye. If the cornea is damaged, it can lead to blindness.
Are shingles contagious? If you haven’t had chicken pox, you can get it from someone who has shingles. And can shingles make a return visit? Yes again, but it’s generally a more mild case. An unfortunate 10 to 18 percent of patients develop post-herpetic neuralgia, which translates to a lingering pain even after the rash and blisters go away.
What triggers shingles? It is most common in older adults and people who have immune system weakened by stress, injury, certain medications or other reasons. In my case, it was a sudden stressful event. That may have awakened the varicella zoster virus that had been lurking in my system since a childhood bout with chicken pox.
Managing the pain for the duration of the outbreak – mine lasted about a month and left no physical scars – depends on the patient. I tried two painkillers before finding one that helped. For several weeks, I couldn’t bear to have anything, even soft fabric, touch the rash. Not surprisingly, depression often accompanies this virus. But it does eventually come to an end.
Lesson learned: Get the shingles shot. Its effectiveness is 51 percent, Perron says, but if you’re unlucky enough to get shingles after the vaccine, it likely won’t be as painful or last as long. He suggests you talk to your physician about the best time to get it. It’s FDA approved for people 50 and over. The CDC recommends it for everyone 60 and older, and many insurance companies don’t cover it until then.
“Most people don’t pay a lot of attention to the prospect of getting shingles,” Perron says. “But if it happens to you, it’s like, ‘Holy smokes!’ That’s when you understandably develop a healthy fear of it.”
As a shingles survivor, I can attest to that. And if you don’t believe me, then take it from Terry Bradshaw.
- Michelle Bearden is a contributor to TGH Health News. Top photo by Daniel Wallace, TGH Health News, other photos courtesy of Michelle Bearden.