I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I do dip occasionally into cable news to fill my brain with the latest dystopian horror. When I did recently, I got extremely annoyed by the commercial for the shingles vaccine — shown several times an hour, it seems — where an overly dramatic, alarmed guy repeats, ad nauseam: “Shingles doesn’t care.” As with the ubiquitous Lume Deodorant ad (I swear, I never want to hear “butt crack” coming from my TV again), I immediately hit the mute button.
Well, guess what I found out the hard way — shingles doesn’t care. In fact, shingles DGAF.
I woke up on a Saturday in August with a strange burning sensation in my left pectoral. I had been doing some qigong exercises the night before, so I assumed it was muscle pain. But it wasn’t like typical muscle pain; it felt weirdly like a sunburn, and despite being a typically sedentary journalist type, I wasn’t so out of shape that gentle Chinese exercise should have left me hurting the next day. I told my wife about my strange symptom, but she’s used to my hypochondriacal complaints and just said, “Huh.” I figured whatever it was would go away.
It didn’t. And the next morning I noticed a patch of reddish-purple dots on my chest. I opened up my web browser, as one does, and typed in my symptoms for Dr. Google. Along with possible reasons I could be dying, I narrowed it down and, for once, made an accurate self-diagnosis.
My doctor confirmed it as soon as I took off my shirt. By this point, the rash had gotten uglier and was beginning to feel less like a sunburn and more like being poked with pins. “Yep, that’s shingles,” he said, grabbing his prescription pad. “Have you had your shingles vaccine?” I told him I had gotten one dose but forgot to get the second. He told me that was good, because it would probably be a lot worse if I hadn’t.
I hit the pharmacy and came home with a bottle of antiviral pills, B12 tablets, and a box of lidocaine bandages. By this point, the pain was constant and getting worse fast. And it wasn’t just localized to the rash but spread across the left side of my chest. Another patch — a couple of angry, pimple-like blisters — had bloomed near my armpit.
Shingles comes from the same virus that causes chickenpox, I learned. I got chickenpox when I was 15, which is the ideal age to be covered in scabby, flaking blisters, and mine was so bad my mother admits she had a hard time looking at me. The chickenpox virus, varicella zoster, goes into hiding, like a criminal disappearing into a foggy alley, and waits, patiently, for decades, until it decides to shout, “Surprise! I’m back!” and begins stabbing you incessantly.
And it travels through your nerves, which aside from being even more evil, is why the pain is so intense and deep and widespread. By this point, it was icky-looking, too, as I could see in my wife’s expression as she applied the little rectangles of lidocaine bandages to my chest and under my arm. (Note: Chest hair and bandages are an awful combination.)
Wearing a shirt was painful, so I went shirtless, like a penitent. At night, the sheet and comforter became instruments of torture, mocking my inability to sleep. The lidocaine bandages provided some relief, but not much. I moped around the house, whining and bemoaning my misfortune and stupidity for not getting my second dose of vaccine. Like Job, I wondered what I could possibly have done to deserve this curse. And then I did something really stupid.
I visited the shingles subreddit.
Pro tip: Do not visit the shingles subreddit. Aside from the stomach-churning photos, the stories are horrific — people can get shingles in their eye and lose their vision. Sometimes it invades ears and causes permanent deafness. The pain is compared by some to passing kidney stones or childbirth without anesthesia. In extreme cases, it can get so bad it requires hospitalization and intravenous antivirals. If it infects your brain or lungs, this jerk virus can, yes, kill you.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 people in the U.S. will get jiggy with varicella zoster virus in their lifetimes. If you’ve had chickenpox, there’s a very good chance the virus will pay you a return visit. And because stress can cause its reemergence, it is likely to come at a really, really inopportune time. Adding insult to injury, the CDC says 10-18% of those who get it develop nerve pain — postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN — that lasts for months or even years.
And it can come back —again and again, for some terribly unfortunate people.
In retrospect, I got lucky. The antivirals worked well, so after about 10 days of poor sleep, self-pity, piles of used lidocaine bandages littered around the house, and annoying my wife and kids with my redundant moaning and wandering from room to room like a revenant, the incessant crushed-glass agony began to lessen. The blisters started to crust over and scab (eww), which I learned was the beginning of the end. Yay, scabs. And then, finally, it was over.
But it’s not, really.
The virus that really, really doesn’t care has left a ghost behind, in the form of a not-painful but definitely irritating and weird sensation in my chest, like light pinpricks, or a mild sunburn when it gets hit with water from a shower. Not irritating enough to hurt, but just enough to feel when my shirt rubs against my skin a certain way. Not only did shingles make my life miserable for over a week, it left a calling card that may, God forbid, last a very long time.
If you’re older than 50 and qualify for it, please get your shingles vaccine. I’ve become an evangelist for getting vaccinated, because even though I know I had a case that could have been a lot worse (see: r/shingles), I do not wish it on anyone (well, only very few, and those people deserve it, to be honest). And now when I see that annoying commercial, I nod in smug affirmation. Shingles absolutely, 100% does not care.
But I do. Get thee to Rite Aid or CVS or Walgreens or your doctor’s office posthaste. And don’t forget the second dose.