The past several months, my personal health has taken a hit. As a mom to three kids, my sickness is typically limited to a quick cold or stomach bug I catch from the kids once or twice a year. And even though these types of sickness slow me down a bit, there is no stopping with three kids ages five and under.
That’s why I was thrown for a loop when I came down with the shingles virus at the end of September 2016. When I think of shingles, I think of it affecting senior citizens–the 60-plus crowd. Before I was diagnosed, I had no idea people in their thirties and even twenties could get shingles. I work out a few days a week, hardly get a chance to sit down because of my kids and eat a fairly healthy diet, including mostly home-cooked meals. So how in the world did I get shingles?
I decided to consult Dr. Google to find out more about shingles, and here’s what I learned. Shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus (varicella zoster), which I contracted as a child. It can lie dormant in your system for years or decades before reemerging as a secondary infection of shingles. About 1 in 5 people will get shingles in their lifetime.
Older people, especially those with weakened immune systems, are most susceptible to shingles. Also, those with chronic illnesses have a higher chance of shingles. None of these profiles fit me, a fairly healthy (then) 34-year-old. But then I found another common contributor to shingles that can affect all ages: stress.
I know many are wondering how a stay-at-home mom could possibly be under enough stress to get shingles. I’m no longer in the corporate world working 8 hours a day, true. My home life is good—though having little ones testing your patience all day can add up.
So what was it?
The night before my son had surgical procedures for a chronic illness (and six weeks after he was hospitalized for a week), I felt exhausted and achy, which I attributed to the workout I completed that afternoon. I felt the same way the day of his procedures and it wasn’t until the next day that more obvious symptoms popped up. My head and neck were killing me, so much so that I went to my parents’ house to use their spinal stretching machine in the hopes that it would help; it didn’t. I also noticed a small rash pop up on my back. At first I thought it was poison ivy, but when I realized the rash was more painful than it was itchy, it dawned on me that it must be shingles.
Two days after my son’s procedures, a doctor confirmed my case of shingles and prescribed anti-viral meds (3 times a day for 7 days) and Tylenol-Coedine (every 4-6 hours as needed). Unfortunately, the pain meds took 1.5 hours to kick in and then only lasted for 2 hours. As much as I didn’t want to continue taking the medicine, I could not get on top of the pain otherwise. For me, the pain wasn’t unmanageable on my rash itself, which was spreading from my back around my ribcage to the front of my torso. Instead, my most severe pain was toward the end of my nerve endings up in my head and neck. It was like a horrible horrible headache that wouldn’t let up for days. I was dizzy when I stood up and had to walk around clasping my temples. The pain meds would give me two hours of relief at a time once they finally kicked in, then at the four-hour mark the pain was back with intensity, even waking me up in the middle of the night. I also had nerve pain that tingled down through my sciatic nerve to my calves. Though this pain was still bad and uncomfortable, it was nothing compared to the pain in my head.
Four days after my diagnosis, I had to return to the doctor because I was out of pain pills even though my symptoms had not eased. This time, they gave me a round of steroids (Prednisolone) for the inflammation and another prescription for pain meds. Just a few hours after taking the steroids, I felt my pain decrease dramatically (despite not having taken the pain meds for 8 hours) and from there on out I had minimal pain and could function normally until all my pain subsided around the two-week mark.
Three months after my first bout with shingles and roughly 4 weeks after my daughter’s three-hour surgery, I got a horrible headache one afternoon reminiscent of my shingles headache. That day, I noticed a faint rash beginning to appear on my back in the same spot as before, and immediately headed into Urgent Care to get medicine. The physician’s assistant—who saw me for this second time—was surprised to see me back for shingles so soon, as she assumed my system would have begun building up immunity. Though it is possible to get shingles multiple times, most people only develop it once, and of those who get it more than once it is often spaced out by years or even decades. Because of this, she referred me to a local family medicine practice to get an overall physical complete with bloodwork. According to the family medicine doctor and my bloodwork stats, everything looks normal–which is a big relief since shingles often affects those with weakened immune systems.
I started my antivirals the same day that my pain and rash started, along with a 5-day dose of steroids and pain killers as needed. Starting the steroids at the beginning made this second go round much more manageable, though after my steroids were up the pain did increase in intensity and lasted until the two-week mark. Once again, my pain was not in the rash itself, which never fully popped up this time thanks to taking the medicine early. My pain resided in the nerve endings in my head and neck, and this time I also felt it more acutely in my trap on my right side (as shingles tends to affect only one side of the nervous system).
When I contracted shingles for the first time, I scoured the internet for hours trying to find answers as to why a seemingly healthy woman in her 30s would develop shingles. I’ve collected the information I’ve found (both evidenced-based and anecdotal) in an attempt to provide insight for others who are looking for answers and don’t fit the typical case of a shingles sufferer.
What is Shingles?
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus that is marked by a painful or itchy rash typically on one side of the body that often spreads around the trunk of a person. If a person has had chickenpox in the past, the virus stays dormant or inactive in the nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain, but can reactivate years later. The CDC estimates that 1 in 3 people will develop shingles in their lifetime, with approximately 1 million cases each year.
Many people experience fever, chills, headaches, sensitivity to light, fatigue or tingling where the rash will soon appear. The two times I’ve had shingles, I felt achy and tired a couple days before my rash popped up. Both times, I thought this was a symptom of hard workouts. I also had horrible headaches and sensitivity to light that left me practically immobile, especially the first time I got shingles.
Pinpointing triggers for shingles gets a bit dicey. Most sources agree these are the most common triggers:
- Age: Shingles is most common in people older than 50. And some experts estimate that half of people 80 and older will have shingles.
- Weakened Immune System: Diseases such as HIV, diabetes and cancer can increase your risk of shingles. Also, radiation, chemo, organ transplant medicine and prolonged use of steroids can increase your risk of an outbreak.
- Stress: Stress is considered a newer trigger for shingles. Everyone defines stressors a bit differently, so I think stress could apply to medical issues (personally or with loved ones, as in my case) to job stress to trauma and more.
But as I scoured the internet for information about shingles and thought about my own case, I wondered if my stress about my kids’ surgeries were compiled with other lesser stressors to create a tipping point. In both of my shingles outbreaks, the other common denominators were recent menstral cycles and hard workouts involving the posterior chain (specifically deadlifts). And historically, I have muscle imbalances all along my right side from my thigh (IT band) up to my ab muscles (psoas)–and the right side was the side where my rash broke out. I’ve also had three epidurals in the past 5 years, so although it’s anecdotal, I am also tracking these less common stressors in case I have another shingles breakout.
Though shingles cannot be passed person-to-person, the virus responsible for shingles (herpes zoster) can be contracted from direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters to a person who has never had chickenpox (varicella zoster) or the chickenpox vaccination. Shingles is less contagious than chickenpox and the risk of a person with shingles spreading the virus is low if the rash is covered. I kept my rash covered and avoided babies less than 1 year old since the chickenpox vaccination is commonly given around the 12-month mark.
There are both traditional and natural medicinal routes when it comes to shingles. I implored both seeking relief, though even combined they didn’t work as fast as I had hoped. As much as I would have loved to “tough it out” and go the natural treatment route, it was a level of prolonged pain that I had never experienced.
- Traditional Medicine:
- Antivirals (these must be started as soon as possible after an outbreak to be the most effective)
- Pain killers (it was impossible to stay on top of the pain during my first outbreak)
- Oral steroids (to reduce inflammation on pinched nerves)
- Topical creams (to reduce the spread of the rash)
- Natural Remedies:
- Rash: wet compresses, calamine lotion, colloidal oatmeal or essential oils baths, sprayed colloidal silver (I tried this), manuka honey
- Supplements: I used super lysine (including Vitamin C, echinacea, licorice, propolis, odorless garlic), sublingual B-12 and colloidal silver sprayed on my rash, apple cider vinegar (taken orally and applied topically on rash)
- Food: avoid arginine-rich foods (chocolate, nuts, etc.) and eat foods rich in lysine
- Alternative doctors: Acupuncturist, Chiropractor
- Recurring shingles: Although it is possible to get shingles more than once, this happens in only one to five percent of patients, usually those whose immune systems are compromised. These cases can occur many years after the first episode and tend not to develop in the same area of the body as the first bout. I’m still surprised I got shingles again so soon after my first outbreak, but that just explains how big a factor that stress can be.
- Postherpetic neuralgia: This condition affects nerve fibers and skin, causing burning pain and sensitivity to the affected area that lasts three months or longer after the rash and blisters of shingles disappear.
The shingles vaccine (Zostavax) is recommended for adults age 60 and older, whether they’ve already had shingles or not. This vaccine reduces the risk of developing shingles by 51% and postherpetic neuralgia by 67%. The first time I was treated for shingles, the physician’s assistant recommended I get the vaccine a year after my outbreak. Of course, then I got shingles again three months later. It has been just over three months since my last shingles occurrence, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the recurrences are done for now. I will research the vaccination more next year when I hit the one-year mark to weigh the pros and cons.
Why is shingles rampant today?
The chickenpox vaccine was created in 1995. When I was growing up in the 1980s, most kids contracted chickenpox—and I’ve even heard stories of chickenpox parties.
“In general, vaccines need to be boostered throughout life, but there is little information about boostering the chickenpox vaccine in adults. When the “wild type” virus was more prevalent, many adults got automatically boostered by being in the proximity of kids with childhood chickenpox. In fact, one theory as to why we’re seeing more shingles now is that this boostering effect is diminishing as more parents choose to vaccinate their children.” (Emily Kane, ND, LAc)
My parents and most other parents also contracted chickenpox as a child, so that when their kids got it, it provided a boost to their own immunity. Once the vaccine was introduced, the possibility of a boost for parents or adults was greatly diminished, which may be why there seems to be a rise in the number of shingles cases affecting adults in their 30s and even 20s (the age when many adults have small children who would have provided a boost).
After I contracted shingles, I started hearing of many other adults in their twenties and thirties who have had it. All the cases seem to have stress as the common denominator—whether it was stress associated with grad school or an occupation.
The best way for myself and others in their thirties and twenties to manage shingles is to manage stress—much easier said than done as we are in the thick of a fast-paced life with careers or kids and there is rarely time to slow down. Yoga, working out, blogging, hiking and cooking are my stress outlets, but obviously they weren’t enough to keep my shingles at bay the second time. At any rate, I’m hoping my kids are done with major surgeries or hospitalizations, but if not, I now know I need to go above and beyond to manage my stress when these types of situations happen in my own life.
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