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I Thought I Was Too Young to Get Shingles. I Learned the Hard Way.
March 21, 2024

I Thought I Was Too Young to Get Shingles. I Learned the Hard Way.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

If you’re over 50, get the vaccine., Shingles: Younger people can get it. I learned the hard way.

A little more than two weeks ago, I took a red-eye home with my then-11-year-old daughter from a perfect winter break trip to Disneyland. It was more fun than I could have imagined, even with the eternal lines, ride breakdowns, and lack of vegetables. We rode every roller coaster in the day and the dark, ate uncountable clouds of cotton candy, and generally marveled at how clean everything was. (We live in Brooklyn, after all.)

But on the flight back from California, I could feel that something was weird with my leg. I didn’t think too much about it—I was on an airplane! But by the time we walked into our apartment around 7 a.m., I knew that something was wrong. The whole inside of my right thigh was sore. There wasn’t a lump, but thanks to having, well, ample thighs that love to connect with each other, I was very uncomfortable, and concerned.

On Monday morning, I woke up with a new symptom: an intermittent, painful, pins-and-needles sensation spreading down the front of my right thigh. I also had a little red blotch of skin, but as I said, my thighs rub together, so maybe it was nothing? I had previously booked a yoga class for that morning and showed up to it (on Zoom), despite my discomfort. My teacher suggested I talk to a doctor right away in case it was a blood clot. That hadn’t even occurred to me. I booked a virtual urgent care appointment with the doctors at NYU—the advances in apps, scheduling, and access have made moments like this so much easier—and spoke to someone later that morning. She doubted a clot but suspected I had pinched a nerve while walking so much at Disneyland.

Tuesday, everything was worse. More pain, and in my hip too. It was hard to walk. I made an appointment to see my primary care doctor the next morning. To get to sleep, I took half an old Percocet left over from a friend’s C-section.

But the next day at the doctor, I downplayed everything. ‘I feel a lot better today!’ I told her. I thought it was true, but maybe I was wishing? It was my daughter’s birthday. I had to be fine, right? My doctor agreed with the one from the virtual appointment: some kind of nerve aggravation. She suggested ibuprofen.

By Thursday morning, I had a rash all over my right leg, above the knee. I had therapy (also on Zoom) at 8:30, and I told my therapist what was going on. Nicole winced. ‘It sounds like shingles,’ she said.

Anyone who had chickenpox as a child can get shingles as an adult; the virus lives in us forever. That’s why it’s so beautiful that kids can get chickenpox vaccines now—that means they won’t get shingles later in life. I had a very mild case of chickenpox as a kid—like, maybe three or four spots. But that doesn’t lessen the chance of getting shingles. Most believe that stress is a contributor. Although I had a beautiful time at Disneyland, the travails of raising a middle schooler have definitely had an impact on my stress level (and surely so has the overall state of the world). And while shingles is more of a concern for adults over 50, it has, in recent decades, risen among younger people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, something doctors have noticed too.

Still, when Nicole suggested shingles, I barely heard her. Shingles is for old people and super painful, I thought. I’m only 48. Plus, my leg was sensitive to the touch, but the splotches weren’t killing me or anything. I took a picture of the new rash on my leg and sent it to my doctor. The response was almost immediate. ‘Call the office,’ the voicemail said.

That afternoon, I had my third appointment of the week, a virtual one with an RN who works with my primary care doctor. We were on for barely 30 seconds before it was confirmed: ‘I am not seeing you in person, but … I think you have shingles. Did you have pain on the inside of your thigh?’ She listed all my symptoms. She prescribed antiviral medication and told me to start it right away.

I regretted that it had taken four days to sort out what was wrong with me—and have continued to regret that. But I hoped maybe I’d headed off the worst at the pass. I hadn’t.

It turns out shingles is super painful—and way worse than I had imagined. I’d thought it was, like, a big, red, unsightly, blistery rash that was painful. No. It’s ‘this is a virus attacking your nerves’ painful.

Also, I thought everyone said it was so painful in part because old people got it, and old people are weaker than younger people. As my symptoms worsened, I wondered how people with real nerve problems manage to get through their days. It hurt to wear pants. It hurt to stand up. Sometimes, I wished I had gotten shingles on my face, or my head, instead of my leg; maybe that would be, ironically, less intrusive. I did not want to leave the house, and mostly didn’t. I burst into tears, frequently, because there was nothing else to do. Occasionally, I could create some distance from the pain by immersing myself in Survivor, but alas, that was only temporary.

I am writing as if this is the past tense, but it is very much my present. This morning, two weeks into having shingles, I scheduled another virtual urgent care visit. The lovely doctor on the other end told me he would prescribe me gabapentin, which sounds like a wonder drug the more I learn about it. It will help the pain, especially as I increase my dose. Its main side effects are to help with sleep (yes, please!) and ease anxiety (also yes, please).

Disappointingly, my prescription came with a reality check that this shingles pain will last weeks—or months. (Cue more tears.) I was hoping to use this spring to get in shape, get sunshine, get … happy. All that’s on hold until I can ease the pain and not be a self-pitying basket case.

Earlier in my shingles journey, I posted on Instagram, begging my friends over 50—who can easily qualify for the shingles vaccine—to go get the shot. And so I am asking you to do the same, even though I don’t know you. If you aren’t 50 but have a vulnerable immune system or are under lots of stress, it might be worth talking to your primary care provider about your options. I thought I was extremely unlikely to get shingles. But now I’ve heard about friends in their 20s and 30s getting it. We are all vulnerable! But maybe I can help you be less so by sharing.


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