My column today is a health alert. I am hoping my mistake will never be yours.
My adventure started a few weeks ago. I was clearing brush from a pasture that my husband and I plant to fence, making more grazing pasture for the mini horses. As I hacked at weeds and sticker vines that reached over my head, insects rose into the air and spiders skittered sideways in the brush.
That evening, I felt a burning sensation on my stomach. When I lifted my shirt there were two raised red welts. Spider bites, I thought, an alarm sounding in my head. The next day at work, I noticed the bites were burning even more. This, too, shall pass, I told myself.
Within two days, my rib cage was hurting so much that I thought maybe I’d broken a rib. I bet it’s a pulled muscle, I thought, heading off to bed. But the pain kept me from sleeping. I was up and down, pacing all night long.
By morning, I felt a little better. If it’s a pulled muscle it will heal on its own, I reasoned. But that night, the pain returned, even worse. When I took a deep breath, my lung now burned. Maybe it is not my ribs, but my lung, I thought. I went to bed with a heat pad. It was a long night with very little sleep and in the morning, I asked my husband if he would go with me to the Express Care on Baltimore Boulevard.
I had only been to this Express Care once in the past and had been treated wonderfully. This experience was no different. The physicians assistant who treated me asked what was going on. I told her about my lung and how my rib cage felt like it had a permanent cramp in it. But I had shooting, burning nerve pains, too. Then she asked, “Do you have any other symptoms or concerns?”
“I do have two spider bites,” I answered. I didn’t know if a spider bite could cause this, but I thought I should mention it, just in case. She asked to see, and when I lifted my shirt you could see recognition on her face.
“That looks like shingles to me,” she said.
Shingles!? I looked down at my tummy. That’s when I realized there were no longer two bites. There were six spots.
“Shingles cause all kinds of nerve and organ pain,” she explained. “Did you have any pain in the week before these showed up? Usually, there is pain before the rash.”
I had. My legs and lower back had been extremely achy. I’d brushed it off, thinking I was doing too much. I should have known something was coming on.
She prescribed antiviral medication to battle the infection and painkillers to manage the pain. I was told that the blisters would fade in three to four weeks, but the neuropathic pain could last months.
At home, I researched shingles. I knew they were caused by the chicken pox virus and I remembered that my sister had had a wretched case of them on her arm, but I blamed that on her weakened immune system and the fact that she was going through chemo for cancer at the time.
Research rewarded me with a better definition. Shingles is an infection of an individual nerve and the skin surface that is supplied by the nerve. It is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. Anyone who has had chicken pox can develop shingles. It lays dormant in your body and can pop up at any time, but usually after age 50. If you have not had chicken pox, you will not get shingles.
I learned that there are an estimated one million cases of shingles reported annually in the United States. One in three people will have shingles in their lifetime, and some individuals have it multiple times.
I wondered why it is called shingles. I couldn’t find an answer to that, but my guess is that it is because the pain is so bad that you want to jump off a roof.
Someone who has not received the chicken pox vaccine who has not had chicken pox can get chicken pox from someone with shingles. They are only contagious to those who come in direct contact with the rash itself before it scabs over.
Then, I read an article on the website for National Vaccine Information Center that alarmed me greatly. It told how Gary Goldman, one of the first researchers (in 2005) to publish an analysis of the mass use of chicken pox vaccine by children in the U.S., concluded that, by limiting the circulation of wild type Varicella Zoster virus in the population through mass vaccination, there would be limited asymptomatic boosting of the natural chicken pox immunity among adults who had recovered from chicken pox as children. This would, in turn, cause an epidemic of shingles!
Just after I read this article, I heard from a friend who told me she has had shingles three times! Every time she reaches the six months you must wait after an outbreak to get the vaccine, she gets it back again. Finally, she is now symptom-free after seven months, but the vaccine is not available. It turns out, we are right now in the middle of a shortage of the shingles vaccine! Maybe it is because there are so many shingles outbreaks, as predicted by Goldman in 2005.
In 2008, a publication by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in the United Kingdom, also predicted mass use of the chicken pox vaccine would lead to an increase in shingles cases. Another report said that more than 50 percent of Americans aged 10 to 44 years will get the shingles, but there are also reports that young children and teenagers, who were given the chicken pox vaccine are now experiencing shingles as well.
I hope my experience spurs you to action. If you are over age 50, save yourself some agony. Visit your doctor and get the shingles vaccine. You do not want to get shingles.
If it weren’t for the pain, I’d kick myself for not getting the vaccine years ago!