Before You’re Down & Out, Get Shingles Vaccines

By Amy Pisani, Executive Director of Vaccinate Your Family 

It’s been a rough couple of years for me on both a physical and mental level.  I suspect that I am not alone in my struggle, as we are ALL reeling from the stress caused by the pandemic. This is the tale of how my stress-suppressed immune system triggered a case of shingles that nearly ruined my holiday.

In early spring 2019, I had a ski accident, tearing all the ligaments in my leg plus my knee.  The accident led to months of physical therapy, a surgery and a long recovery period. As late fall arrived, it was time for my annual check-up, and so I hobbled in on my crutches and asked the provider (not my regular nurse practitioner) for a shingles vaccine. However, as flu season was coming he wisely recommended the flu vaccine and suggested I come back the next month for the shingles vaccine.  He was not willing to co-administer the vaccines, much to my chagrin. I was frustrated because having been under a significant degree of physical stress, I had an inkling that I was about to become one of the 1 in 3 people who will experience a case of shingles.

When I urged the doctor to reconsider, he said that having only recently turned 50, I need not be too concerned about shingles. However,  I knew that the CDC has recently changed the recommendation from age 65 and older to 50 and older, based on data that cases were becoming frequent in “younger” persons. I didn’t want to become a statistic, especially having heard many stories of people suffering serious consequences from shingles. As a public health expert, I wanted to be proactive in protecting my health. However, I relented and planned to go back for a shingles vaccine as soon as possible.

I was well aware that my own body was the incubator of this particular virus and that stress is a known trigger. As a person born before the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine began to be recommended I, and my four sisters, all had chickenpox — which I remember vividly. As a member of that generation, we have the distinct displeasure of serving as an incubator to the varicella-zoster virus. You see, shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox and you can only get shingles if you had chickenpox. After you recover from chickenpox, the virus stays in your body and goes dormant in the roots of the nerves. Years later, most often after the age of 50, as our immune systems begin to decline, the virus can reemerge in the form of shingles.

When people say that shingles is more than just a rash — believe me, it’s true.

Fast forward two months. I had yet to go back for that shingles shot. But in doing my best to catch up on overdue well-care, I arrived for my annual mammogram, which had also been delayed because of my accident. Sure enough, I got that dreaded call for a suspected lump two days later, and my stress level understandably hit maximum capacity as I was worried about what the future would hold. Having an extensive family history of breast cancer, including my late mother, the typical fears hit me good and hard. I was also incredibly busy at work and was forced to cancel an important business trip in order to get my follow-up scans completed before the Christmas holiday. Thankfully, it was just a false alarm. However, by that point, the stress from my accident and surgical recovery, coupled with work deadlines and the false breast cancer alarm inflicted its toll on me.

Two weeks before Christmas, I felt an annoying itch on my lower back, which I thought was the tag to my new pair of jeans. While at work, I cut the tag out, but the irritation just seemed to get worse and worse throughout the day. Throughout the evening and into the next morning the irritation became intense, and it was accompanied by lower backache. When I looked in the mirror, I saw the telltale shingles rash — it was about 5 inches long and about 2 inches wide running up my left side. I scheduled an appointment with my nurse practitioner. When I went to the exam room, I asked her to tell me that it was not what I suspected it to be — but sure enough, she said, “Yes, Amy. It is shingles.” I was given a prescription for the anti-viral and sent home to rest.

Shingles rash

When people say that shingles is more than just a rash — believe me, it’s true. What looked like a minor irritation escalated throughout the days and nights to follow. I experienced random stabbing pain that can only be described as what it would feel like to have a hot acupuncture needle being inserted directly into the nerve in my lower back. These electrical shock-like events spread from the nerve in my back throughout my entire body. On top of that were the flu-like symptoms that caused aching joints, fever, nausea and intense headaches. It seemed to get worse in the evenings and caused random hot flashes that lasted for over six months, keeping me from being able to get a good night’s rest. That was one rough Christmas holiday, and it was several months before I felt fully recovered.

I know that I’m one of the lucky ones in that my rash appeared on my lower back. Many friends and family have had much worse cases, including several who had the rash on their faces, and one friend whose mother had it affect her eye. The most common complication of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). People with PHN have severe pain in the areas where they had the shingles rash after (at least 90 days) the rash clears up. The pain from PHN usually goes away in a few weeks or months; however, for some people, the pain from PHN can last for years and may interfere with their everyday life.

This past week I celebrated getting my second dose of the shingles vaccine. I did experience a rough 12 hours of fever, headache and body ache (all signs my immune system was responding to the vaccine), but now I’m so happy to know that I am protected against a recurrence of the virus. And so, my tale comes to an end with a warning for those hitting Fifty and Fabulous — do not to wait like I did to get your shingles vaccine.

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