Shingles Can Be Totally Unbearable For Some People

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Coline Haslé/Unsplash

It started with a weird rash. It looked like two clusters of bad acne, honestly, but my husband said it hurt. “Should I go to the doctor?” he asked. Thank God I said yes. He called me two hours later. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but I have shingles.”

We’re in our mid-30s. I thought only old people got shingles. I thought shingles was highly contagious (and subsequently flipped out). I thought shingles went away pretty quickly.

Wrong, wrong, wrongity-wrong.

What shingles is

According to the Centers for Disease Control (the CDC), shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which also causes chicken pox. If you’ve ever had chicken pox, or ever gotten a chicken pox shot, you can get shingles — and 1 in 3 Americans will get it in their lifetimes. The virus goes dormant in your nervous system and becomes active again (scientists aren’t really sure why).

As for it being “an old person disease?” WRONG. Turns out at least two of my friends in their mid-30s have also had the disease. Even children can get shingles, says the CDC. Luckily, you usually only get it once, but some people get it multiple times. There is a vaccine available. My husband’s doc said he can get it five years after his infection.

What are shingles symptoms?

My husband started out with some mild nerve pain in the general area where he eventually developed the rash. This is typical. A few days later, he got the typical rash, which in his case, has looked like acne. It can also resemble fluid-filled blisters, and usually only occurs on one side of the body. The kicker, though: it hurts like a bitch, agrees every single medical source and my poor husband. He developed the sometimes-typical “fever, headache, sensitivity to light, and tiredness,” according to the Mayo Clinic. But not only do the blisters hurt. Your nerves hurt. Your muscles hurt. Bear said it felt like he had been scalded with hot water about an hour before, all the time. Yikes.

After about 2-7 days (2 days in his case, as he was immediately treated with heavy-duty antivirals, thanks to me insisting on an immediate visit to the doc), the blisters crusted over. By about a week, the pain had lessened, though he still hurt.

And about that chicken pox connection …

I had a massive freak-out when I discovered my husband had shingles. Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. Guess who has two kids who aren’t yet fully vaxxed for chicken pox (we thought they were up on all their vaccines … we discovered we were wrong when we called the doc to check). Cue the complete mama meltdown, especially after a brief consult with Dr. Google.

Remember: Dr. Google always gives you the worst case scenario.

Yes, shingles can communicate chicken pox to those who are not fully vaccinated against the chicken pox. That is, if, according to the CDC, someone who is not immune to the chicken pox comes into direct contact with the fluid from the shingles blisters (ick). You are not infectious before the blisters appear. You are not infectious after the blisters crust over. You are only infectious when the blisters actually pop and the fluid comes out and you touch it and then you touch someone who doesn’t have immunity. Ew, ew, ew.

Easily solved: don’t touch your damn rash and wash your fucking hands a lot.

The good news? Dr. William Schaffner, doctor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and a leading infectious disease expert, told Live Science that kids who get the full complement of chicken pox vaccines are at a much lower risk of getting shingles later in life — as in, 99% of kids who get the vaccine won’t get shingles. One more reason to vax your kids, folks.

So how long does shingles last again?

Basically, shingles sucks ass. It’s like this miserable gift that keeps springing new and inventive presents on us regularly.

Most people don’t get antivirals so quickly, or have a weakened immune system, and so have to deal with this shizz for two to four weeks. I might be forced to move out at that point. One side effect of both shingles and the antivirals that we’ve discovered, and which no one really talks much about? Violent fucking mood swings, some of which have to do with your nervous system being out of whack, some of which have to do with being in constant pain. My husband is mostly exhausted and hurt-y. It sucks.

What about complications?

My husband has been super lucky. No complications here. But they exist and they’re awful.

According to Drug Topics, about 10-15% of people of all ages develop postherpetic neuralgia, which is when severe shingles pain persists for months or even years after the rash disappears. It can be debilitating, and the older you are, the more likely you are to get it. Lucky for my husband, the CDC says it’s rare in people under 40.

If you get shingles near your face, you can suffer vision loss or encephalitis (swelling of the brain), says the CDC. The Mayo Clinic adds that it can also cause facial paralysis, hearing and balance problems, and skin infections if the blisters aren’t properly cared for.

So how do you treat this misery?

Antivirals, folks. Pill yourself up with some hardcore antivirals — my husband took horse pills five times a day for a week, and a lot of the time, it was hard to tell if his symptoms came from the antivirals or the shingles. You can also take pain meds. While my husband, Bear, stuck to over-the-counter stuff (a magic combo of ibuprofen in addition to prescription Xanax seemed to do it), the Mayo Clinic lists a whole host of other meds for severe pain that your doctor might prescribe.

Thank God we’re on the tail end of this misery. The kids haven’t gotten chicken pox. Bear is still behaving like, well, a bear, but his pain is decreasing and he’s regaining more function, though he still spends a lot of time watching Netflix (he says you know it’s bad when he’s watching the entire Children of Dune series). I’m just grateful I sent him to the doctor when I did. If you ever find yourself with a painful rash, call your doctor. Quick antivirals could make the difference between a week and three weeks of severe pain.

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