Shingles, also called herpes zoster or varicella zoster, is a disease of the nervous system. It's the same virus that causes chicken pox. After getting chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in the brain and spinal cord for the rest of your life, and you will have the possibility of getting shingles at any time. However, most people don't have shingles until over the age of 50.
Emotional or physical stress can help cause a new outbreak of shingles. That's why rest and emotional relaxation prove vital to recovery from a shingles outbreak.
The virus attacks the nervous system, causing irritation along a nerve path. The nerves swell up at these points of irritation, causing very painful bumps. Although bumps should only be along one nerve root, an extremely weak immune system can give way to disseminated shingles, or shingles that attacks several nerve roots at once. A shingles victim may also experience a fever, nausea, and vomiting as a result of the wearing down of the body. The virus will undoubtedly cause exhaustion throughout the term of the illness. The length of time that the illness lasts depends on the case. I've talked to people who only broke out over a weekend. I broke out for seven or eight weeks. The virus is contagious in that contact with someone who has shingles can cause chicken pox (but not shingles) for someone who's never had chicken pox before.
Antiviral drugs such as Famvir, Acyclovir or Valacyclovir help fight off the virus. In addition, doctors may prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection of the sores. Doctors typically will prescribe painkillers as well. If you have shingles you need to visit your doctor so that he or she can prescribe an antiviral medicine to help fight off the illness. If the outbreak is around the eye, it is crucial to go to the doctor as soon as possible for treatment, as extreme outbreaks around the eye have been known to cause blindness if the eye becomes damaged.
After the illness
Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) can affect a patient for weeks, months, or even years after an outbreak. PHN is a continuing nerve irritation that causes pain where there formerly were blisters or even in new locations. It can be treated with the same pain medicines that the shingles outbreak was treated with, and eventually, with more mild pain medicines. A past outbreak does not guarantee that a victim will not have shingles again.
I had shingles when I was 18, the summer after I graduated from high school. It was one of the most stressful times in my life, and this greatly contributed to the weakening of my immune system. The week that I believe I contracted the virus, I had just done a 2-mile lake swim competition, and I was getting in as many workouts as possible before a triathlon in which I'd planned on competing. The physical stress my body was undergoing, combined with the emotional stress, both became contributing factors in the weakening of my immune system.
On Tuesday, July 31, 2001, I first began experiencing pain behind my left eye. I noticed it while driving because I could not look out of the corner of my eye very easily. By that Friday, the pain had grown, and I visited the doctor with the vague description of a sharp pain in my head. She diagnosed me with migraines and sent me home with Imitrex. This, of course, didn't help, and I went back the next day. This time, she said that perhaps I had a sinus infection, so she prescribed an antibiotic and another painkiller. Pain in the head could be just about anything, and family members and friends began offering their ideas for diagnoses, much to my amusement.
Monday, August 6, I woke up with what I thought was a large painful pimple on my forehead. By the afternoon, I had several of these "pimples" in a row, creating what was clearly not just a matter of clogged pores. By now the pain was more specifically what I described as "path pain," which ran from my eye back to my forehead and through my scalp in a line. The doctor recognized my condition immediately as shingles, and she prescribed Famvir and Tylenol 3 )with codeine) for the pain. She said the outbreak would remain on only one nerve root. She also said that other than a 14-year-old she'd once diagnosed with shingles, I was by far the youngest person she'd ever seen with an outbreak.
But the shingles didn't stay in one nerve root; by the end of the week it had spread to the right side of my head and was also affecting my left ear and neck. At this point, I went to the hospital and spent 10 days there. The doctors tested for HIV and leukemia to try to find out why my immune system was so weak. I was also there so that I could receive pain and antiviral medication by IV and so that someone would be able to take care of me and keep me hydrated via saline solution. I had Acyclovir three times each day, an antibiotic four times each day, and Demerol every three hours, all by IV. I found skin creams to be ineffective. I had a fever nearly the entire time and threw up a couple of times each day. I didn't go to my first semester of college; it would have been nearly impossible as it took months for me to have the strength it would have taken for studying late into the night or walking across campus.
After I returned home, it was early September before I slept through an entire night without waking up to take Vicoprofen (Vicodin with ibuprofen), the pain medicine prescribed for my post-hospital pain. A few days later I got through an entire day without a nap, another milestone in the recovery time. Around mid-September, I could walk up a flight of stairs without exhaustion. By the end of September, I'd stopped vomiting daily, and I had my last few sores break out. Altogether, I broke out on each side of my face/forehead, both ears, several nerves on each side of the neck, both shoulders, my left arm, and several nerve strands on my back.
In November of 2001, I switched to a 900 mg/day of a more mild pain medicine, Neurontin, also prescribed for epilepsy. In May of 2002, I went down to 600 mg/day of Neurontin, and I stopped taking the medicine in November 2002.
I didn't believe that shingles was stress-induced until December 2001, when I started worrying about something and found 2 new bumps on my face, or May 2002, when I had more nerve pain than usual during my first college semester's finals. It's important if you have shingles to make yourself relax emotionally and to choose not to stress out.
Also, if you're reading this and worrying because you have shingles, please DON'T WORRY! Most outbreaks are not this bad. Mine was a bit of an extreme case. Besides, worrying is bad for the sickness. Focus on relaxing and on not stressing out about your illness.