Whenever I used to hear of someone getting Shingles, I’d think of a dreary Victorian period piece and shoddy medical practices like lobotomies and bloodletting. And then, at age 30, I actually got the Shingles.
Luckily, the doctor didn’t order a lobotomy, but I probably wouldn’t have minded given how much pain I was in.
I was also really confused. Isn’t Shingles an older-person’s disease? I thought to myself. My friends asked the same when I told them.
The fact is, while seniors are at higher risk, many people of all ages are susceptible. One in three people will get Shingles, in fact—and plenty of them are young!
Shingles, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a viral infection that affects the nerves and causes a horrifically painful (and itchy!) rash—along with exhaustion and flu-like symptoms. It’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox (which I had when I was two).
You have to have had the chicken pox to get the Shingles. If you have, the virus—like a nasty little termite—will remain dormant in your nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Then, when it feels antsy (i.e. when your immune system is taking some time off), it comes out to play. Fun, right?
In general, risk factors include having infections (like HIV) or cancers, being immunocompromised, or taking certain drugs. Many sources claim stress can lead to Shingles as well, since stress can wreak havoc on your immune system.
That’s sort of why so many older people are at risk for it: Their immune systems tend to be compromised. For me, I was taking an immunosuppressant drug that, in essence, let the virus out of the gate. (Cue images of viral cells wearing war paint.)
I fit the “get Shingles” bill perfectly. I was two months into using a biologic drug called Humira, an immunosuppressant used to treat an autoimmune condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis. I was warned that I could get sick—and sure enough, it happened!
One evening, I noticed that my ribcage was on fire. Touching my skin hurt like hell, as if someone scraped me and was rubbing salt into the wound. It was seriously the weirdest physical sensation I’d ever felt. I thought I maybe snapped a rib while swimming. I had no language for the pain, simply because there’s nothing like it.
The next morning, right before getting an X-ray, I spotted the rash: a few tiny red spots on my right side had emerged, a bit like heat blisters.
“You’ve got Shingles,” my doctor said immediately. What tipped her off? The fact that Shingles normally appears on only one side of the body. “It doesn’t cross the midline,” said my doctor.
And the rash, by the way, is just the icing on the cake. It’s the nerves under your skin that hurt the most. For me, it felt like someone had cut, burned, and bruised me all at once—in a sort of stripe formation, from my chest to my back, right along my ribcage. And the strangest thing is that the area with the heaviest rash was less painful than other un-rash-covered parts of my skin. It plays by its own rules, I suppose.
When the painkillers wore off, I felt like I was actually broken—and I truly (no exaggeration) wondered if I could take it anymore. Let it be known that my autoimmune disorder causes chronic pain, but nothing—not even an iota—like this. In the “worst day ever” category, Shingles takes the win.
I couldn’t leave the house for a week, since I was super-contagious. (Hi. This was very boring.) A person with active Shingles can spread the virus (as chicken pox, not Shingles), though when the rash gets crusty, contagion is reduced.
I was prescribed antiviral medication, which I had to take three times a day for 10 days. Without rapid medication, Shingles can cause something called post-herpetic neuralgia, which causes chronic Shingles pain (without the rash) for months or years after the episode. I was lucky I began treating it within 48 hours, although statistically, I could still get post-herpetic neuralgia. Shingles—depending on severity and location—can also cause other complications: inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), facial paralysis, blindness, and hearing or balance problems.
In order to combat the pain, itchiness, and general awful-ness of the experience, I took my medicine and also looked into more holistic remedies, throwing everything I could at the problem. Shingles, according to National Institutes of Health, can last anywhere from three to five weeks—which was absolutely not okay by me. No, thank you.
Here’s what I did:
I heard that tea tree oil could help keep the rash clean, so I diluted four-five drops in a base of witch hazel and applied it to my rash several times per day. The coolness of the tea tree oil felt incredible, and I believe it helped shrink the rash within about seven days. Keeping the Shingles rash clean is important because it can develop bacterial issues. Witch hazel is also very light and cleansing, and doesn’t burn irritated skin at all.
When my skin was fresh and clean (after wiping it down with witch hazel and tea tree oil), I’d apply a light coating of the Manuka honey and leave it on for a few hours. Later, I’d wash the honey off gently with some cool water (hot water aggravates Shingles—stay away!).
FYI: You can’t spread Shingles from body part to body part (they sort of evolve, from the nerve root, on their own). It’s not like poison ivy, for example.
Related: I Added Vitamin C To My Skin-Care Routine—Here’s How My Face Reacted
The worst of my Shingles pain lasted about six days. I slept a lot and wriggled in pain even more. Nights were the worst. The rash was well-controlled, too: After diligently cleaning it, in about six days it also started to shrink considerably.
Given how terrible Shingles are, it’s odd that we don’t hear more about the condition. Part of me wonders if there is a stigma attached to it: Rashes tend to gawked at, and people with skin disorders often face judgment by strangers. These stigmas are problematic, since the more we communicate about our experiences, the more we can potentially help others.
Next time you hear of someone having Shingles, offer to pick up their dinner or bring them some Manuka honey. It may not seem like a common condition, but it’s out there—and it’s awful.