Sea Sick: by Keith Murray
As I write this, I can still feel the nerve pain and headache from shingles. It has been over three weeks and, although the pain is subsiding, I am not yet 100%. I am not complaining, because it could have been a lot worse. My friend Robby is still recovering from shingles, and his outbreak was not only on his face – it was on his lips, inside his mouth and on his tongue. He said the pain, which he described as bees stinging the inside of his mouth, literally made him cry.
My symptoms started off with a very bad headache, elevated blood pressure, and a rash about the size of a quarter on my forehead. I thought the rash was from rescuing a litter of kittens the day prior, after the mother cat was hit by a car. I am allergic to cats, but I still rescued the kittens and bottle-fed them until a new home was found. The headache I assumed was from elevated blood pressure – and that, I figured, was from work-related stress.
After several days of not feeling well, I went to an urgent care clinic, where a doctor told me it was most likely shingles. I was instructed to start taking medication immediately: Valacyclovir, three times a day for seven days. Valacyclovir, the generic form of the brand Valtrex, is an antiviral medication that is used to treat shingles, but is also used to treat oral and genital herpes.
What causes shingles? Shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox reactivates in your body. Most of us had chickenpox as children and forgot about it. What happens is the chickenpox virus goes to sleep in your nerve roots. In some people, it stays dormant forever. In others, the virus “wakes up” when disease, stress or aging weakens the immune system. For me, it was stress that woke up the virus.
Is shingles contagious? Yes, and no. According to the Centers for Disease Control, a person with active shingles can spread the virus when the rash is in the blister phase, but only to someone who has never had chickenpox. If you had chickenpox, you usually have antibodies against the virus in your body and won’t catch shingles from someone else. The patient is not infectious before the blisters appear or once the rash crusts. The virus also doesn’t spread when the blisters are well-covered.
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for getting shingles. The risk goes up as you get older – shingles is most common in people over age 50 – but even children can get it. Most people who get shingles will make a full recovery and are unlikely to get shingles again. According to the CDC, about one out of every three people in the U.S. will develop shingles, also known as herpes zoster, in their lifetime. An estimated 1 million people get shingles each year in this country.
Early signs of shingles include burning or shooting pain, and tingling or itching. Typically, shingles is on one side of the body or face. The pain can be mild to severe. My pain was about a 7 on a scale of 10, while my friend Robby experienced a 10 on the pain scale.
One to 14 days later, you will get a rash. It consists of blisters that typically scab over in 7 to 10 days. The rash is usually a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body. In other cases, the rash occurs on one side of the face. In rare cases, usually among people with weakened immune systems, the rash may be more widespread and look similar to a chickenpox rash. Other symptoms that can occur are fever, headache, chills and upset stomach.
There is a vaccine to prevent shingles or at least lessen its effects. The CDC recommends that healthy adults over age 50 get the Shingrix vaccine. Shingrix requires two doses, given two to six months apart, at a cost of about $150 per dose. I plan to get the vaccine as soon as my symptoms are gone – just in case.
The irony is that I predicted I would get it. While watching the 2019 World War II movie “Midway” with my father, I saw Fleet Admiral William “Bull” Halsey suffer with shingles, where ultimately he had to be taken off the ship and hospitalized. So, I wrote myself a note to get the vaccine. A week later I went to the pharmacy for my flu shot and asked for the shingles vaccine at the same time. I was told that I can’t get both at once, to pick one and come back in a week for the other – guess which one I picked?
Moral of the story: If you are over 50, don’t make my mistake – get the vaccine. It’s worth every penny not to suffer shingles.
EMT Keith Murray provides onboard CPR, AED and first-aid training as well as AED sales and service. His company can be found at TheCPRSchool.com. Comments ont his column are welcome below.