Shingles knocked me down, stomped on me, kicked me to the curb, and left me whimpering. This disease changed me forever – and not for the better.
Even though I was an active child, fate never handed me a broken bone to nurse back to health. Likewise, no adult illness had ever made me cry from the pain. So, I was unprepared for the excruciating agony, itching, and pustulant rash that lay in wait for me.
Shingles are also called adult chickenpox. One virus (varicella-zoster) causes both chickenpox and herpes zoster (shingles). The medical term for the shingles virus is acute herpes zoster.
Shingles, as I found out, is an intensely painful rash that appears on one side of the body – and it is more common than you might think, affecting almost 1 in 3 Americans of all ages. More than half of all shingles cases occur in people over age 60 but children can develop shingles, too.
After a patient recovers from chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus remains dormant inside the body near nerve tissue. It never goes away. At a future time, the virus can reactivate and cause shingles. Experts have no idea why this happens.
The shingles rash is linked to inflamed nerves beneath the skin. The shingles virus attacks the nervous system and can damage it:
“When the virus is reactivated it begins to multiply within the dorsal root ganglia (a part of the nervous system), which causes damage and swelling to this area of the nerve. This damage to the nerve causes the first pains of shingles. The virus then moves along the nerve to the skin, damaging the nerve and causing swelling as it goes. When the virus finally reaches the skin, it causes the shingles rash.”
Anyone who has survived chickenpox can get shingles. The opposite is also true: people who never had chickenpox can’t get shingles.
I had chickenpox as a child. In fact, my mother conspired with several of my classmates’ moms to have a big party so we kids would all get infected at the same time and miss school together. (This is how American families used to roll.)
As an adult, I scorned the supermarket pharmacy ads advising people over the age of 55 who had chickenpox to get a shingles vaccine. My mistake.
When I got shingles, in early December 2016, I attributed the sore muscles in my torso to the physical strain of a recent home move aggravated by the stress of working a new job in an unergonomic office environment. I exercised to build myself up, started dosing with inflammation-fighting ibuprofen, and applied a menthol heating and cooling rub to soothe my chest.
The next day, I woke up to shooting pain under my right breast that was so intense I thought I had cracked a rib somehow.
A few days later, a small red area appeared below my lowest right rib. Having no idea what caused this rash, I used healing aloe vera gel to treat it, kept applying the topical pain-relieving muscle rub, and continued to swallow anti-inflammatories.
The rash soon spread over the entire right side of my torso and I began to think that something was seriously wrong. On my way to work, I visited an urgent care center and listed my symptoms on the health history form. The doctor didn’t even have to see my rash because she knew what I had, based on my condition: shingles!
The doctor explained that my case was advanced and severe because I had waited so long to get treatment – about two weeks from the first pain I thought was muscle strain. The medication normally prescribed to reduce shingles symptoms would be less effective, she said, and I might experience residual pain for weeks, months or even years.
The pain for the remainder of December 2016 was so intense I sobbed myself to sleep one night. On the pain scale, mine was 10 out of 10: crying pain. When my urgent care doctor prescribed an ineffective non-opioid painkiller, I begged some leftover oxycodone – an opioid – from a relative. (Although opioids are highly addictive, they are much less so when used to treat extreme pain.)
After the skin rash fades, postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) may continue to produce pain and irritation. Neuralgia is a stabbing, burning, and often quite severe pain that occurs along a damaged nerve.
Nerve fibers, damaged by an outbreak of shingles, can no longer send the right messages from the skin to the brain. The scrambled neurological signals become confused and exaggerated, causing chronic, often excruciating pain, itching, burning, and tingling that can last months, years or even the rest of your life.
Now, almost three years later, the area beneath my lowest right rib that reaches from my the center of my breastbone all the way around to my back aches almost constantly with occasional painful flare-ups.
In one sense, I was lucky: extreme cases of shingles can infect the eye and lead to blindness. That didn’t happen to me.
Shingles can be managed to some extent by our diets. Overall good nutrition boosts the immune system and helps heal damaged nerves. Some foods relieve the symptoms of shingles, while others aggravate them. I found that foods loaded with lysine don’t trigger a painful reaction as do foods loaded with arginine.
Certain herbs can help, too:
“Corydalis, Jamaican dogwood, meadowsweet, valerian, and kava may help reduce your pain. Other herbs may be helpful in treating shingles and postherpetic neuralgia too, including St. John’s wort, oat straw, and skullcap. Licorice extract has also been used topically to help treat postherpetic neuralgia.”
If you have had chickenpox, you might consider getting a shingles shot. It is expensive – around $250 – but folks aged 60 and up may have insurance that covers the entire cost.