5 Things You Learn After Getting Shingles
Recently, I was hanging out with Cracked columnist Brendan McGinley on a Thursday night, when I suddenly felt completely run down and miserable. Yes, Brendan was partly responsible, but it felt like something more. I dragged through the next few days, and then I woke Sunday morning with a shooting pain in my right eye, a headache, and increased fatigue. I stayed in bed all day and binge-watched the entire Daredevil series on Netflix, and that only made my pain worse, because I was still bitter about being turned down for the lead role. (Apparently, my abs were "too defined and sexy to be believable in the body of a blind superhero who is a master in martial arts.")
Pfft, I guess this is what passes for superhero abs these days. Whatever.
Anyway, come Monday, my whole face felt weird and tingly, and I had a strange bump on my head that I assumed was a spider bite. (I know what you're thinking: This is nature's way of telling me I'm a better fit to play Spider-Man, but no!) Y'see, it turns out that all these symptoms were leading to a diagnosis of shingles. Yes, I had shingles, and, as I was about to find out, even though everyone has sorta heard of it and a third of Americans get it during their lifetime, most people don't really have a good handle on what shingles is. There are popular and incorrect notions that it's a highly contagious old man's disease you can only get if you've never had chicken pox. Well, as my research and life experience has taught me, none of that is true, so let's address that and all the other things I learned getting this old-timey-sounding disease, in case it happens to you.
No One Gets What It Has To Do With Herpes
OK, before we get to the chicken pox connection, some background on what shingles is. Its real name is herpes zoster, and it's a virus that can attack anywhere in the body, although conventionally it will manifest with an incredibly painful rash on the torso some percent of the time. If left untreated, the rash can get a wee bit startling.
And by "wee bit," I mean "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAIGH!!!!!"
I was lucky and not so lucky. On the not-so-lucky side, my shingles flared up on the right side of my head -- specifically, the trigeminal nerve. No big deal. That's just the part of the nerve that runs down the brain, over the eye, and into the ear. Barely noticeable! But on the positive side, because of early intervention, my rash never got past the point of looking like my left eyelid was sexually promiscuous.
Somehow, this didn't do so well for me as my Tinder profile pic.
So, yeah, shingles is in the herpes family but, y'know, is not the sexually transmitted herpes you're thinking of. You don't get it from sexual contact, and its presentation is not on the lips or naughty bits. But hey, don't let that stop you from making jokes like, "Ha, you have herpes," or, "Uh oh, look who's got herpes," or the ever-classic, "HERPES!" They are all solid, first-rate jokes.
No One Gets What It Has To Do With Chicken Pox
In any event, this brings us to the relationship between shingles and chicken pox. When I told people I had shingles, what I heard over and over again was, "You've never had chicken pox?" Yes. Yes, I had chicken pox. That's how I got shingles. That's the whole point. You can only get shingles if you've had chicken pox. After battling chicken pox, the virus stays latent in your body and can be reactivated as shingles at any time. Think of it like hooking up with someone you're not attracted to and making the mistake of giving them your phone number. At any given moment, they can send you a text reading, "You up?" But in the case of shingles, what they're looking for is not 30 minutes of forgettable and depraved sex but a two- to four-week opportunity to inflame your nervous system.
"Can I come over and make you moan and cry out ... in a bad way?"
But here's the good news: The chicken pox vaccine prevents 98 percent of chicken pox cases, and if you prevent that, then you're also preventing yourself from getting shingles. And that's great news for a lot of you, because the chicken pox vaccine became pretty standard in the U.S. in 1995. Unfortunately, although you'd never believe it from my photos, I was actually born slightly before 1995, so yeah, I got chicken pox like a normal, red-blooded all-American, and it flared up 30-something years later. So while many of you might never know the joy of shingles, you can still try to find other ways to emulate me. (May I suggest eating Costco samples for lunch and catfishing Cracked's own Felix Clay?)
Everyone Thinks Only Old People Get It
When I told the people I had shingles, I got the following reactions: "Why? Are you a 90-year-old woman," and, "Shingles? You mean old man chicken pox?" and, of course, "Get away from me, you weirdo. I don't know you. Why are you telling me about your shingles?" There is a definite belief in the world that shingles is only for old people. Someday that might be true, because only people who didn't get the chicken pox vaccine in 1995 or later will ever be at risk for shingles, but right now this is a false conception. Adding to the misconception is that there is also a shingles vaccine, which is typically only given to senior citizens because, unless you're a senior citizen, getting shingles won't kill you. It's sort of like Taylor Swift having hit records: If you're under 60, you can deal with it.
Is Taylor Swift like an in incredibly painful disease? In a way, yes.
Even my daughter thought it was an old person's disease and started quoting that shingles vaccine commercial to me in an old lady voice, which was weird, because the version of the commercial I saw starred former Football great Terry Bradshaw. So yeah, the vaccine's for old people, but it's not just an old person's disease. Indeed, even if you think I'm an old man, even Cracked's own super young and sprightly C. Coville got shingles when she was just 24. Can you believe it? Even worse, she was in Australia at the time, which meant the only known treatment was three weeks of IV transfusions of Koala venom, but still all 5 feet 10 inches of her Australian body was riddled with painful, rashy shingles! OK, that's not true. Apparently, she got the cranial kind like I did, but I think we can all agree her immune system sucks even more than mine. 24! What a loser!
No One Gets How Contagious It's Not
I'll never forget that day at work when my boss entered my office to find me clutching my right eyeball in pain. "I have a doctor's appointment in an hour," I said, "but I think I have shingles." Filled with compassion, he promptly took two giant steps back and said, "That's, like, really contagious, isn't it?" Later, when I posted a picture of my slight rash on Twitter, one of my followers said, "Keep that covered!" and advised that that's what the doc had told his dear old granny. But actually, herpes is less contagious than chicken pox. What's more, shingles is only contagious when your rash is producing discharge. Y'know, when it looks like this.
"AAAAIGH!!!! Why would you show us that picture again!"
Here's some more information on shingles. You can't catch shingles from shingles. If you're exposed to shingles discharge (and I'm thinking you'd have to TRY to be exposed to that) you can only catch chicken pox -- if you haven't already had chicken pox and/or been vaccinated against it. So, in my case, when I had early intervention and my rash never got worse than that weird eyelid pic above, I was never really contagious, unless you were planning on passionately sucking on my shingles eyelid until it exploded in your mouth. (Oh, wait. That does explain why Cracked's own Felix Clay canceled our lunch date.)
Medicine Isn't That Great About Treating It
Even though a million Americans apparently get shingles every year, it seems that established protocols for treatment can vary. It is also easily misdiagnosed. The rash can be improperly identified as angina, bug bites, impetigo, contact dermatitis, and other maladies. And if you don't fit the most common presentations of senior citizen with a torso rash, then the chances of getting misdiagnosed are even higher. Just look at Cracked's own C. Coville, who was apparently misdiagnosed as having "kangaroo fever." (OK, in truth it was misdiagnosed as a bee sting.) Desperate for meds, C.C. diagnosed herself with the help of the Internet and presented the diagnosis to an emergency room physician a day later.
Unfortunately, because she checked WebMD, she was also unnecessarily treated for cancer.
When what I thought was shingles struck, I wanted to get meds right away, because everything I read said early intervention increased the chances of shortening the duration of the illness and decreasing the chance of a relapse. But, here in America, it took me calling six different doctors to get an appointment for a same-day visit. When I arrived, I repeated the entire differential diagnosis that I'd memorized off Wikipedia to a doctor right out of med school. I saw her mentally clicking bullet points as she read along on her computer screen, confirming that I was saying all the right things.
Anyway, she prescribed me a big bottle of Valtrex. (Yep, that's the anti-viral herpes medication, shut up.) That's pretty standard. But, as you might have heard, shingles are really painful. How painful? Well, it's an inflamed virus on your nerve-endings, which, y'know, are the things that are best at feeling pain. And, as mentioned, it was on my trigeminal nerve. Does that sound familiar? Yeah, if you watched the Netflix Daredevil series, you might remember a scene where Nurse Rosario Dawson is giving Daredevil tips on how to torture a Russian gangster. She advises stabbing him in the trigeminal nerve.
Accurate representation of shingles pain.
So you'd think my physician would prescribe something for the pain. Nope. A buddy of mine got narcotics when he got shingles, but I got nothing. My brother (a physician) told me to ask about coupling the anti-viral with a steroid, and after checking the computer and actually phoning her doctor friend, my physician decided not to. (Yes, she used two of her lifelines for one medication decision.) The next day I saw an ophthalmologist to ensure my vision was unaffected, and he opined he would have treated me with a steroid. Later, another doctor wrote me a prescription for an anti-seizure med, Neurontin, that has shown effectiveness dealing with the pain. So yeah, fair to say the medical profession is not all on the same page for treatment. After a couple of weeks, the flare-up subsided, which means I got to stop gobbling up a fistful of meds every six hours and got to devote myself full-time to auditioning for lead roles in superhero adaptations.
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