What It's Like to Have a Minor Case of Shingles

My version was mild thanks to early antiviral treatment

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Fever symptoms are typical. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

I don't usually report on my own illnesses, but my recent experience with shingles - a reactivation of the chickenpox virus within the body - reminded me of how important prompt treatment for the disease is.  What's more, I've been struck by how many stories I've heard among friends and acquaintances who were diagnosed with shingles in their 20s, 30s and 40s, despite a commonly-held belief that it's an elderly person's disease.

My timeline:  As if thinking about a condition can bring it on, I'd been gathering research for an upcoming column on shingles for CBC Radio, a regular assignment of mine.  It was the day after a late-night flight from New York City, so a few sharp pains in my side weren't surprising; after all, I'd had the worst seat on the aircraft, at the very back of the plane without the ability to recline.  The pains were intermittent and I chalked it up to muscle soreness.

But 24 hours or so after those first pangs, while rubbing the spot I felt two bumps which turned out to be blisters.  Blisters, on my back?  No allergies, no sunburn.  I immediately thought about the shingles rash, marveling at how the condition that had been on my mind was now possibly on my body!

Sure enough - thanks to a family physician willing to fit me in at the end of a full workday - I was promptly diagnosed with a small (3 inch/7-8cm) blistering shingles rash on my back and handed a prescription for a one-week's course of antiviral medication and a recommendation to take it easy.

  My antiviral treatment thus began less than 48 hours after the initial pain, 24 hours after the appearance of the rash.

The timing is critical, because if administered within 72 hours antiviral medication can vastly reduce the severity of the disease, and shorten its duration. In my case I felt I'd dodged a bullet, and the rash (which didn't get any bigger) was gone within a week.

  I had no more pain, and lingering symptoms were flu-like, including sore throat, headache and real fatigue.

Fortunately during this time I had no concerns about giving the disease to a family member, because shingles is not contagious. Since the blisters do contain the live varicella zoster virus however, it's recommended you cover up a shingles rash to avoid giving anyone a case of chicken pox.

In the end, I suffered only from a few weeks of tiredness as a result of my illness, thanks to an accommodating physician and prompt treatment.  While another doctor in our clinic congratulated me on inoculating myself against shingles (by getting a mild case), I'll still opt for having the shingles vaccine because you can get the disease more than once.  I'll just have to wait a year, as agencies like Health Canada advise waiting a full 12 months after an active case of shingles.

While there's some elevated risk of stroke after a case of shingles, my chance of having the devastating nerve pain (postherpetic neuralgia) that can accompany the disease is extremely small.

In the meantime, maybe I'll start researching lottery tickets.

Please note: This information is offered for education purposes only, and is not intended for self-diagnosis, or to replace the advice of a health-care professional. If you suspect you may have shingles, please consult your physician as soon as possible for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Sources:

CDC Seeks to Protect Older Adults With Shingles Vaccine Message. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Information Sheet. Accessed November 14, 2014.
http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/shingles/downloads/shingles-vac-msg-2008.pdf

Fact Sheet: Shingles (Herpes Zoster)  Public Health Agency of Canada Public Information Sheet.  Accessed November 14, 2014.
http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/id-mi/shingles-zona-fs-eng.php

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