I’ve known several people who have had shingles, and they’ve all suffered severely from painful blisters on their face and/or back that persisted for several weeks, along with fever, headache, fatigue, and light sensitivity or some combination of these symptoms.
So when my sister called a couple of weeks before a long-planned and eagerly-anticipated family celebration to tell me she’d been diagnosed with shingles, my heart sank to my toes. Our gathering wouldn’t be complete without her, plus I shuddered to think of the ordeal she faced.
What happened was - pretty much nothing. She had a few dry scabs on her back and a few days of feeling achy, and that was it. Although her doctor assured her she was not contagious, she offered to cancel her trip if our niece, scheduled to host my sister for several days, had any qualms about exposing her toddler son. Presumably our niece’s pediatrician assured her it was safe to proceed with Plan A, and a good time was had by all.
Getting off so lightly wasn’t just my sister’s good luck. She had had her shingles shot, which not only reduces the risk of shingles but can dramatically diminish the severity of the condition. Why anyone who has known or even heard about a shingles victim would not rush to be vaccinated is a mystery to me, but in fact the shingles shot is the most neglected of adult inoculations. Although it's recommended for adults sixty and over, even if they have already had shingles, only 28% of Americans in that age range - just over a quarter - were vaccinated in 2014. Where’s the logic in that?
Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same microorganism responsible for chickenpox (varicella). Once a person has had or been vaccinated for chickenpox, the virus becomes dormant in nerve roots. In about a third of these individuals, by mechanisms not well understood, the virus reactivates later in life and cause shingles. (There is no evidence, by the way, that having been vaccinated in childhood, as opposed to having had chickenpox, affects either way the likelihood of developing shingles.)
A small percentage of shingles patients will be hospitalized; a few will die. Most will be thoroughly miserable. One of my neighbors considered her shingles episode to be her “lost summer.” At our age, who wants to lose even one precious season if it can be avoided?
Although shingles cannot be spread from person to person, there is a remote chance of spreading the virus to someone who has never had either chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, but only via direct contact with weeping lesions. Admittedly an unlikely scenario, but still, one more reason to ensure that every medically-eligible child is vaccinated for chickenpox.