Snowed Under with Shingles

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Judith in Snow

A post by my friend Judith Gray:

Midway through the Boston snowmageddon, I decided to shovel the family room roof before the predicted eighteen inches fell on the three feet already there.

The next day I woke up with wrenching pain in my lower back. I read up on all the cures for a strained back – anti-inflammatories, ice then heat, stretching exercises, rest – and tried them all. Even with the maximum doses of ibuprophen I couldn’t sleep, but lots of folks at work were complaining and carrying around little bottles of pills so I figured this was just something to be borne.

Then I noticed a rash on my stomach…a dreaded allergic reaction to ibuprophen, I thought. So I switched to naproxen and acetaminophen. The pain was unrelenting and I was exhausted, so I finally called my health clinic and insisted I needed stronger pain meds. They made me come in.

The doctor took one look and said, “It’s shingles.” The rash had spread around my back in a broken line of red bumps. Shingles has nothing to do with roofing materials – it comes from a the French and Latin for belt and girdle, and typically makes a half-circle around the trunk (never crossing the mid-line), though it can occur elsewhere.

Rash Front

Rash on Back

But wait…I had the shingles vaccine when I turned 60. “Good, that should keep you from getting postherpetic neuralgia (pain that can last for years), “ the doctor reassured me. “It’s probably too late for an anti-viral to work (72 hours from first sign of the rash is the effective zone) but if you’re desperate and want to try anything, I can prescribe it.”

Yes, give me all the meds I can get! She prescribed the anti-viral valtrex, and percocet for the pain, and told me I must quarantine myself until 24 hours after the rash stopped spreading. “ You can’t go to work. Your husband will need to keep an eye on your back to let you know when the spots stop spreading. He’ll also have to take the written prescription to the pharmacy and do the grocery shopping.” Having a retired husband home 24/7 wasn’t looking so bad.

While shingles is not contagious, I could infect someone with chicken pox, particularly dangerous for the elderly and pregnant women. Both diseases are the varicella-zoster virus; if you’ve had chicken pox, the virus is lying dormant in your nervous system, waiting to travel along neural pathways to your skin. Stress, trauma, and a weakened immune system can trigger it. Maybe the trauma to my back from the snow shoveling was the cause, though the doctor was skeptical.

Shingles last 2 to 4 weeks, and I’m at the end of week 3. All the stories you’ve heard about the excruciating pain of shingles are true. Some of my friends have seen a Terry Bradshaw clip where he compares the pain to the worse NFL linebacker hits he took – that has bought me a lot of sympathy. It’s an ad for the shingles vaccine, which though not totally effective at prevention, does offer some protection. According to the ad and other reports I have read, one out of three people get shingles. Not sure how accurate that is, but the disease is very common and risk increases dramatically with age as our immune systems weaken. Take a look at the National Institute of Health and the Mayo Clinic for more information.

If you think you might have shingles, get checked out right away to get the anti-viral medicine within the 72 hours window. If you have a bumpy rash (like poison ivy) and/or severe pain, get it checked out; these symptoms can occur in any order. I had the pain for at least three days before the rash appeared. Don’t get sidetracked by a stubborn self-diagnosis or misguided confidence to power through pain.

I’m stilled snowed under (100 plus inches), but I’ve yielded control of the shovel and given in to the need for powerful pain killers. I spend hours under an afghan reading books I’ve been trying to get to for years and look forward to the brighter days of spring.

Judith Gray has worked as a librarian in public and university libraries for 35 years, most recently as Head of Reference at the Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library. She retired from full-time work three year ago, easing the transition by working part-time, while she reinvented her life.  She lives in Bedford, Mass. with her husband of 35 years, and shares a beloved lake cottage with her brother and sister.  She enjoys cooking, reading, traveling, all forms of exercise, and visiting her children in Connecticut and New York.

Check out Judith’s Friend for the Ride post on Lydia Pinkham, who created an early cure for women’s complaints!

lydia-pinkham-portrait

26 responses »

  1. Ouch! Shingles sounds horrible and that you are having such a hard time AFTER getting the vaccine is very discouraging. Hang in there!

  2. Thanks…it is a little discouraging that the vaccine didn’t protect me better but it still seems like a good idea to get it.

  3. Judith I feel sorry for you in all that snow. I grew up in MA so I remember. I also feel bad for you with shingles. I know I got the shot as soon as I turned 60 after witnessing a neighbor in pain from it. I have falsely been feeling smug about my immunity to the disease. Good to know!

  4. Thanks for the great information. I remember my grandfather suffering with shingles when I was a little girl. He also had terrible pain.
    Wishing you a speedy recovery, and no more snow!

  5. Thank you. It’s an incredibly common disease; I hope you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t get it.

  6. Sorry you have had to endure the double whammy of this record-breaking snowy winter plus getting shingles. Thank you for a really well-written description of your illness. It’s good to be reminded that those of us who have had the vaccine can still suffer the disease. Hopefully, you will be spared the long-term PHN.
    Sending warm, healing thoughts your way.
    Janet

  7. Shingles is horrible, horrible, horrible. I had it once on my wedding week. Ugh. So sorry. And you Bostonians have a rough one this year. (My daughter lives there.) I’m sending warm thoughts your way.

  8. Great post to help educate others on the benefits of the shingles vaccine, as well as what to look for should it happen. Hope you are feeling better and have a quick recovery!!

    • Glad your case was mild. On a weird side-note – my nephew just got poison ivy in
      winter here by cutting up a tree that had a ;poison ivy vine growing on it. Didn’t know
      you can get poison ivy in winter.

  9. Oh, do I feel for you. Not only the snow mounds inbetween which you are standing (your home looks so much like a home across the street where we had lived when we were in the Boston area – and in that over 10 years of time, we plowed through many a snowstorm – maybe a couple of the worst until now!). But, to come down with shingles during this horribly rough time seems soooo unfair!

    Redemption! You get to eat at Legal Sea Foods!!

    • After posting this, I realized that you may not find as much comfort in Legal Seafoods as I do. Actually, Legal and the Boston Pops are two of the things that I miss the most about Boston!

      I do agree with you that the stress and trauma to your back shoveling snow could have weakened your immune system and made you more vulnerable and susceptible to getting shingles. I do hope that you recover fully with none of the longer term effects from shingles. I hope, too, that the weather improves soon in Boston. Reduce stress!

      • Thanks for your thoughts. Having grown up in the Boston area, I am very attached to many things here, but not the winter weather! It’s going to rain tomorrow and then we’ll have a big meltdown, to go with the meltdown I’m now having from days of chronic pain. But as my Mom used to say, “this too shall pass.”

      • I was just looking at your previous post on Lydia Pinkham, and that you mentioned that she drew important attention to women’s health concerns and problems.

        Your experience with shingles may possibly point toward some gender/sex differences in the disease that need to be explored. For example, herpes zoster has been found to be higher in people who have had a “recent immunosuppressive condition” and also higher in females. Here’s a link to a 2015 journal article in PubMed:

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25592769

        I am so sorry that you are experiencing chronic pain as a result of this. This is also an area where gender/sex differences may be important to explore, since much research points to gender/sex differences in the experience of and sensitivity to pain.

        Feel better soon, and have a full recovery!

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