I was diagnosed with shingles earlier this week.
This is the second time in my life I’ve duked it out with herpes zoster, which is not the same as the more common herpes simplex virus, but nevertheless, it’s still just as weird and unsettling to be told by your doctor that yes, you are ONCE AGAIN suffering for an unsavory and rare disease that usually affects the elderly.
The first time I suffered from this was in December 2005, when I was 24 years old, and just a few months into my new assignment at the Pentagon.
I blogged a poem about it in an attempt to be cheery since, you know, the holidays. But it was awful. And strange. I remember the right side of my scalp hurting, as if I had been whacked by a hairbrush, or like someone yanked a clump of my hair in an attempt to pull my hair out. Weird, especially since I couldn’t recall anything like that happening to me, but I figured it would go away. After about three days of this pain, I woke up with a visible knot in my neck where my lymph node usually hides, and a slight fever, and my office SNCO (senior non-commissioned officer, one of my bosses) ordered me to get checked out.
My doctor — a petite Indian lady with a thick accent — felt my neck, checked my scalp, took a look at my back, and declared, “You have herpes zoster!”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You had chicken pox as a child, yes? It lives in your nervous system. And it is active again. You must be under a lot of stress. You have shingles.”
So that was that.
I got heavy duty pain meds, anti-viral medication, steroids, and bed rest. I used the time learning about shingles, how the chicken pox virus lives dormant in various dermatomes, and the theories of what triggers it to become active. Because it was caught before a blistering rash actually erupted, I was fortunate: the pain and the skin sensitivity on my scalp could have been a LOT worse. It was mostly my head throbbing and my scalp itching.
I was back to work in a week, and any lingering pain was gone by the time New Years rolled around.
I didn’t catch it as quick.
At some point on Friday, my right shoulder blade started to hurt like I had pulled it. This didn’t alarm me, as I keep a tension band at my desk at work, doing arm and shoulder stretches throughout the day. Plus, we were planning on going to Ohio over the weekend, and I was lifting and carrying suitcases out to the van as we prepared for the trip. I couldn’t recall moving it in a way to cause injury, but who knows? The pain wasn’t unusual or unbearable. So I ignored it.
On our way to Ohio that Friday evening, while driving through the armpit of Maryland, our van’s dashboard lights lit up indicating engine trouble. Not wanting to break down on the side of the road overnight, we got a hotel room, and spent the night. I woke up Saturday morning with terrible shoulder pain in the same spot. I assumed that I had slept wrong on it in that unfamiliar bed, so I took some Tylenol and tried stretching it out.
Then I had Martin work on it, and when he got tired of that, I had the younger two kids stand on it. I kept asking them, “Do you guys feel anything knotted there?”
But they couldn’t feel anything odd, and that was the first time it dawned on me that perhaps this pain wasn’t muscular. But nevertheless, a warm shower and more Tylenol soothed it. Yet, it was *always* hurting.
We got home on Saturday afternoon after the local mechanic in Maryland deemed it safe enough to return home, and I spent the rest of the evening wearing my heating pad strapped to my back. By Sunday morning, it was more of the same, but then I also noticed that the skin below my right armpit, wrapping around my torso from that spot on my shoulder blade, actually stung like razor burn. Or like someone snapped me with a rubber band.
Nevertheless, I sucked it up, took more Tylenol, and headed off to the local amusement park with the family that day.
But as Martin drove us there, I googled ” right shoulder blade pain” on my phone, and it led me almost immediately to shingles articles.
However, I didn’t have a fever or headache or fatigue, which were the other major symptoms. I only had the pain.
I mentioned it to Martin.
“You can’t get shingles twice,” he said. “You were too young to get it in the first place! Nobody gets it twice.”
“Yeah, but … isn’t that my luck? If it was my muscle, and I pulled it, wouldn’t the heat and massage help it by now?”
Before I went to bed on Sunday, I stood in front of the mirror and stared at my back for awhile, at the spot where the pain originated. The skin looked normal. There was nothing to see. But I couldn’t shake the feeling.
And sure enough, Monday morning, I could barely move my right arm. My shoulder blade was throbbing and the pain along my armpit was raging, and there on my back — in that spot — there was redness and the beginnings of four or five little bumps.
I hollered for Martin. I showed him my back. He swore they were just zits. I swore back at him.
Without much more discussion, we got the kids dressed and headed to our providers’ Urgent Care. (Since we had planned to be in Ohio, I was already on leave from work.) The whole time, Martin tried to convince me I was just getting panicky about b’acne.
I hoped he was right.
However, it took less than 10 minutes for the Urgent Care doctor to diagnose me. He said it was a good thing I got to him within 72 hours of the rash first appearing because the anti-virals can stop it from spreading. But I would still be dealing with a slight rash.
And then he asked, “So? Are you under a lot of stress? More than usual lately?”
All I could do was laugh.
Since Monday, I’ve been home in my bedroom, pumped up on pain meds, anti-virals, and steroids, all taken on a very strict schedule.
They make me groggy and loopy.
The bumps on my back never did grow bigger, but the pain definitely intensified. In the moments when I’m waiting for the pain meds to kick in, I stare at the ceiling and try to think of ways to describe what I’m feeling.
It’s like the most intense razor burn after knicking off a few layers of skin from one’s ankle bone while shaving one-legged in the shower. Surely, other women can relate to that moment when it doesn’t yet hurt, but you know you cut yourself, you know it’s gonna scar deep, and you know it’s going to get worse when the water actually hits it. And then the water hits it, and it’s not just a burning pain, but it’s like acid being poured and seeped into the area around it.
That’s how it feels around those small little bumps that still look harmless and non-threatening.
I can’t imagine how it would feel if I had waited longer, and they actually blistered and turned violent like I saw on those online photos of other people with shingles.
And then there’s the discomfort along my torso and under my armpit, which feels like I dry-shaved the whole area before slathering on some kind of irritating lotion or deodorant.
I’m not the only one who has ever done that in a rush, am I?
In fact, I thought I actually did that — even though I couldn’t remember doing so — but the doctor explained the pain is just the virus stretching out along that specific dermatome under my skin. Had it run its course without medication, I probably would have broken out in a rash along there, too.
There’s always a silver lining.
For me, the silver lining is having this time with my family. All of the kids have had the chicken pox vaccination, so they can be around me, and it’s nice not being completely isolated. Usually, I’m the family doctor and nurse, the one who bandages wounds, distributes the medication, and changes the bedsheets every day so feverish little heads have something cool and clean underneath them.
Now, it warms my heart when I see my kids try and do these things for me. I have a very groggy, but very sweet memory of Lola sneaking into my bedroom to put a clean blanket on me as I napped, leaving a kiss on my cheek. Miss C brings me books and ice water throughout the day. And Jaz checks in regularly, too, asking if there’s anything I need, and quickly getting his Dad if I do.
And speaking of Martin, even though he’s shouldering all the family and house work this week, he gets a silver lining, too.
With pain like the kind I just described, it hurts like hell to have anything touch the skin on my back and torso. I have one silk tank top that hangs loose enough to tolerate, but for the most part? No shirts. No undergarments. No bed sheets above the waist. Even the breeze from my ceiling fan creates little irritating whispers of a burning sensation.
So, most of the time … I stay … comfortable.
With that said, I was having a moment yesterday afternoon. My hair was a mess, my face felt swollen from sleeping so late, I was feeling weepy from the pain, groggy from the meds, annoyed that this was happening, frustrated that I couldn’t do anything about it, and woe is me, and all that jazz.
Martin sat at the end of the bed, nodding, listening, all with a goofy grin on his face.
“But, you know what?” he finally said. “I know you feel bad, and shingles is bad, and I don’t like that you feel bad, but if you’re gonna be sick, and I have to be your nurse, well, I can’t complain about the view.”
And then he nodded at me with that silly grin.
I couldn’t help, but smile, too.
That’s my life.
Married and shingled.
There’s a reason I’m sharing all of this.
Yes, it is rare for a person under the age of 35 to get shingles TWICE, like me. The numbers say this happens to less than 5 percent of people who ever had chicken pox.
But anecdotally, just within my social circle, I know many young people — ages 20 to 50 — who have broken out in shingles at least ONCE.
Fortunately, there’s now a chicken pox vaccine given to children so they never get the virus in their system, so they won’t later come down with shingles.
But if YOU are a part of my generation, and you had chicken pox as a child, you are at risk for developing shingles at some point in your life.
So read up and be aware of the symptoms. They are easy to overlook, especially if you tend to overlook and tolerate mild pain issues. But the sooner you recognize the symptoms and get treatment, the better.
And be sure to click on the hyperlinks I’ve included in this post.
The more you know! 🙂
Martin went to the grocery store this evening. This was in the parking lot to greet him. He thinks he was being pranked.