When I was a kid, I thought shingles was one of those diseases that felled sailors at sea, like scurvy or rickets — something you contracted because you were far from both vitamin C and the people you loved. But when I was in college, my father developed the viral infection after a triple bypass heart surgery, and then a few years later, his mother (my grandmother) did, too, after my uncle passed away. So shingles became something that happened to older people, or people who had experienced a great stress.
Years later, a friend going through a divorce got the rash, but she was in her thirties. And another friend, also in his thirties, got it — apparently from being in close contact with his shingles-bound grandfather.
So when I finally came down with shingles, at age 43, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know that it struck young and old alike. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know it was a painful rash that usually showed up around your middle, and came from the virus that causes the chickenpox, which lingers in your body years after you come down with the pox — herpes zoster virus, to be exact.
And it wasn’t as if I didn’t know about the many ways the skin could angrily erupt due to allergies, stress, infection, or even skin cancer. I had done a lot of fact-checking for magazines over the years, quite a bit of it focused on health. If you do that kind of work long enough, you can start to feel like your knowledge base might qualify you to be a physician’s assistant, or a school nurse.
Shingles Strikes Like David Bowie’s Lightning Bolt
But when I woke up one June morning to a strange red patch of blisters hovering over my right eyebrow and trailing down my right temple, I was freaked out and flummoxed. I couldn’t place the rash. In addition to my having been a fact-checker, I was (and am) an anxious person who for one embarrassing fall became an expert in the ways of the bedbug, so I knew it wasn’t that, either. I called my partner in to look at it.
“Good Lord,” he said, with sympathy.
The rash was incredibly strange, but I’d been feeling incredibly strange in the days before, too. I thought I was having my first migraine, because I’d been having a headache and some nausea — the kind of headache that I guess you’d call debilitating, in that I couldn’t do much but lie in bed and wonder what kind of pressure system was bearing down on my upper maxillofacial region. Sinus infection? Migraine? Will I throw up?
Later, I’d learn that physicians call this part of shingles the “prodrome” — a term that’s used to describe specific sets of symptoms that precede the onset of any full-blown illness. The droning assonance of the word seemed to reflect exactly how out-of-it and foggy I felt.
The morning the rash showed up I happened to be off work for a couple of weeks, so I was able to get dressed right away and walk a few blocks to a brand-new urgent care office run by a major New York City hospital. I need to stress how lucky I felt to A) have the time to take care of this situation immediately, B) have a first-rate, non-ER (emergency room) healthcare facility to walk into and get served as if it were Starbucks, and C) have the health insurance to pay for it.
Getting a Diagnosis Was Shocking But Quick
I also need to stress how lucky I felt — and still feel — that the doctor who saw me took one look at my rash and said, “You have shingles.” Because, as I’ve since learned, so many cases of shingles are mistaken by doctors for something else, which is frightening: If the condition isn’t treated immediately, it can lead to lasting nerve damage, which can lead to lasting pain. That pain is called postherpetic neuralgia, and it can affect up to 20 percent of those who develop shingles, according to MedlinePlus. The older you are, the higher your risk, notes the National Institute on Aging.
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“What?” I said, shocked, relieved, and also impressed by the quickness and confidence with which the doctor made the diagnosis. Although if shingles does indeed follow stress, the diagnosis made sense: The week before, I’d had a really terrible argument with one of my closest friends — so terrible that I’d felt all the anger and sadness mounting up inside me like a physical pressure, inhabiting me like a second set of hardened, paralyzing veins.
“The rash shows up in distinctive patterns,” the doctor said, “and where you have it around your eye is one of them.”
The doctor then went on to say that because I had shingles where I did, I needed to see an ophthalmologist right away; if the rash gets into your eye, it can do real damage to your vision. Although my vision didn’t seem to be affected at the time of my urgent care appointment, she said I should still see an eye doctor to be safe, so she referred me to an ophthalmologist.
The urgent care doctor also prescribed me seven days’ worth of Valtrex (valacyclovir), an antiviral drug, to treat the virus causing the rash. I could take NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for the pain if I needed to, but I didn’t. Everything should clear up in about a week, she told me.
I was able to see the ophthalmologist a few hours later, who confirmed that the shingles had indeed not reached my eye. Just to be safe, she told me to buy some over-the-counter lubricating eye drops, which could help keep the eye healthy. She also prescribed antibiotic drops to reduce the chances of an infection developing.
What Does Stress Have to Do With Shingles?
I’ve always assumed that my episode of shingles was caused by stress, but experts are divided on how much stress has to do with bringing on shingles, according to research published in March 2017 in Clinical Infectious Diseases. What does seem to be clearer is that advanced age and lowered immunity are associated with shingles, according to the National Institute on Aging. The stress, the thinking goes, could have lowered my immunity enough to let the virus erupt. A meta-analysis published in January 2020 in Open Forum Infectious Diseases suggested that depression and family history may put you at increased risk for developing shingles, and since I have both going for me … voila, perhaps!
After seeing both doctors and filling my prescriptions, I didn’t go anywhere for a few days, because I looked like David Bowie with a lightning bolt across my face, and because I still didn’t feel 100 percent normal. The rash was not always unbearably painful, but there were frequent zaps of hurt that let me know my nerves were not my own. Even more distressing: If I tried to go outside, even with my bangs down and sunglasses shielding the rash, the rays of the sun induced a stabbing pain on my forehead that almost made me laugh — because wanting to recoil that much from natural light was something out of Twilight.
I know I said that I’m an anxious person, but I’m a hardy person, too, which makes the anxiety all the more shameful. And while I did at first enjoy the opportunity to lie in bed like Proust and use the time to treat myself (as they used to say on Parks and Recreation) by rereading childhood favorites, the self-prescribed bed rest got really old after a few days. It was time to join the living again, which I was able to do because the drugs worked. After about a week, I felt like myself again — thankfully and gratefully.
*The writer of this essay wishes to remain anonymous to protect her health information.