I Got Shingles as a Healthy 34-Year-Old, and It Was the Worst Pain I've Ever Felt
The red, blistering rash, which is caused by the chickenpox virus, is most common in people over 60.
A few weeks after my 34th birthday, my husband and I went for a Saturday hike—a weekly ritual we’d started after moving to New York State’s Catskill Mountains region a few months earlier. I’d been feeling a bit under the weather, and I hoped the fresh autumn air would do me good.
It didn't. Later that night, I had chills and my skin felt strangely sensitive, like when you’re coming down with the flu. On top of that, it felt like I had pulled a muscle in my back or chest; when I breathed or stretched certain ways, I’d get shooting pains across my body. I blamed it on yoga.
Over the next two days, my body continued betraying me in weird ways. Painful red marks appeared under my armpit and my lower back; at first I chalked it up to the new sports bra I'd worn on my hike, but when they started growing in both size and pain, I wondered if a spider had bitten me in my sleep. When I tried foam-rolling away the strange muscular achiness in my back and chest, I swear I almost passed out—my back felt like it was on fire. At this point, I was marveling at my dumb luck: Who pulls a muscle, gets the flu, and gets attacked by bugs (or a really terrible sports bra) all in the same few days?
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Tuesday—which happened to be Election Day 2016—I woke up feeling no better, so my husband suggested that I should call a doctor. “You want to make sure you don’t have, like, shingles or something,” he said. I rolled my eyes. “I don’t have shingles,” I said. “People in their 30s don’t get shingles—at least not ones who run half marathons and write about health for a living.”
Still, I Googled. And when I read the description and saw photos, my mouth dropped. Red, painful rash on the upper torso, one side of the body. Flu-like symptoms. Sensitivity to touch. Chest pain. Holy crap: I had all the symptoms of shingles!
Being new in town, I ended up at the first doctor's office that could squeeze me in. I could tell the first doctor who saw me doubted my self-diagnosis. After looking me over, she left the room to consult with a more senior physician.
That doctor was skeptical too, until he saw my back. Although the rash was in its early stages, he confirmed that it looked like shingles. And while it was surprising to see it in someone like me, it wasn’t unheard of.
He asked if I’d been under a lot of stress lately, since shingles and stress are often linked. I laughed: I’d moved upstate to get away from stressful New York City life!
Then again, I’d recently bought a house, moved away from my friends, started a new work-from-home job, and gone from a dual-income household to a single-income one. (My husband left his job in the city and hadn’t landed a new one yet.) And I had been getting more worked up than normal about the election, especially on social media. So, yeah, I guess things were still stressful.
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The doc told me to avoid close with anyone who hadn’t had chicken pox. Shingles and chicken pox are caused by the same virus in the herpes family, varicella-zoster virus, which stays in the body for life. While shingles itself isn’t contagious, anyone who didn’t already have the virus could catch chickenpox from my rash. Good thing I didn’t feel up to visiting my baby niece and nephew that weekend anyway.
The doctor also prescribed me a week’s worth of antiviral medication along with over-the-counter pain relievers, and recommended I “try to avoid unnecessary stress.” (Did I mention it was Election Day? I think I slept two hours that night.)
Over the next two days, my diagnosis became excruciatingly clear. The rash spread from the middle of my back to the middle of my chest, and the pain when I breathed got 10 times worse. The day after my diagnosis, I struggled through a workday, signed off early, and collapsed on my bed, sobbing hysterically.
You might assume that the rash was the bad part, since it’s the most visible. And yeah, it felt like sunburn and bad bruising at the same time, and I couldn’t wear a bra for a week. But that stabbing sensation in my chest was now coming in waves, and it may have been the worst, scariest, pain I’ve ever felt. My doctor reassured me it was a normal part of shingles: Depending on which nerves are affected by the virus, the pain can sometimes be mistaken for heart, lung, or kidney problems.
Luckily, antiviral drugs can speed healing, especially if taken with the first three days after a rash appears. Over the next week or so my chest pain tapered off, and my rash blistered up and slowly started to fade.
By Saturday, a week after this whole thing started, I was able to get out for an easy hike. It was almost a month before I felt normal enough again to go for a run or do a high-intensity workout; when I finally did, I remember being so thankful I could breathe deeply without pain—something you don’t appreciate until you suddenly can’t! It took a few months for my rash to completely disappear, but it could have been worse: In some cases, shingles can cause permanent scarring or long-term nerve pain.
When I told people I had shingles, many were surprised. But more than a handful of friends—young women my age—chimed in to say they’d had it too. (One said she’d even heard about two other friends who’d also been diagnosed that week!)
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My doctor told me that once you get shingles, you’re at higher risk for recurrences. He suggested I look into a vaccine that could protect me against future flare-ups—but it costs a couple hundred dollars, and it’s unlikely that my insurance will cover it since I’m so young.
I know that shingles can come on randomly—that it probably wasn’t my lifestyle or some underlying condition that caused me to get sick. I suspect that stress may have contributed, but I also think that being healthy and fit helped me fight it off relatively quickly.
I also know that keeping my immunity up is smart no matter what. So for now, I’m just trying to take care of myself, even better than before. That means eating healthy, exercising regularly, keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and yes, trying to avoid unnecessary stress (and political rants!) whenever I can.