In February, Joan Sharrow came down with a painful toothache. Her dentist discovered that the tooth had cracked all the way down to the nerve, and performed an extraction the very next day. But Sharrow’s troubles were only just beginning.
“That night, I felt strange tingling on the right side of my face. I didn’t attribute it to anything because I thought it was the numbing medication from the extraction,” she said. “The next day, I noticed red splotches under my nose and under the lips on the right side of my face.”
As a nurse, Sharrow could read the signs and knew that a tingling sensation combined with a rash likely meant that she had contracted the shingles virus.
Dr. Margaret Hennessy, chairperson of the Immunization Task Force for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, estimates that close to 99 percent of adults over the age of 40 have been exposed to the shingles virus, called varicella zoster – the same virus that causes chicken pox. Since a vaccine has only been available in the United States since 1995, it can usually be assumed that anyone 40 and older has had chickenpox in his or her lifetime.
Awareness of the signs and symptoms of shingles, she said, is important for that segment of the population.
“The virus sets up camp in your nerves and then something reactivates it,” Hennessy said. “We don’t really understand that. We do know that as you get older and your immune system isn’t as robust, it can come back. You’ll see a patch, usually one-sided, that tracks along the nerves it was living in, and it will come back out as a rash.”
The shingles rash might appear to be physically similar to chickenpox. Shingles can occur anywhere on the body or internally, but while chickenpox is found in various places at the same time, shingles will usually be confined to one dermatome – a patch of skin supplied by the same nerve. It commonly presents itself as a strip of blisters around one side of the torso.
“Sometimes you’ll see it in younger people as well, even people who have been vaccinated, but it’s a lot less likely,” said Hennessy, who added that a third of adults will get shingles in their lifetime.
There is no cure for shingles, and the virus must simply be allowed to run its course. Hennessy said that topical remedies such as calamine lotion are often recommended for their soothing effects on the skin. Antiviral medication like Valtrex can also be effective in impeding the spread of the varicella zoster if taken within 24 hours of the rash’s outbreak.
“It’s never as easy as a bacterial infection, where antibiotics work pretty effectively. With antivirals, trying to fight a virus, it can just take a lot longer to do it,” said Hennessy. “An area that was infected with shingles may also get infected with bacteria, so you can have a super-infection.”
Sharrow was prescribed Valtrex, which helped slow the virus. However, she continues to be affected by postherpetic neuralgia, lingering pain caused by damage to the nerve in the dermatomic area affected by the varicella zoster virus.
“It’s basically having a pain syndrome that can linger for months or years after having shingles. It can also affect other parts of your body,” Hennessy said. “You could have scarring, pneumonia, hepatitis – some people do die from this. It’s not a completely benign process.”
Sharrow takes Lyrica, an anticonvulsant, to help with the postherpetic neuralgia, and plans to see a neurologist for further evaluation. In the meantime, she plans to make the most of a difficult experience by sharing it with others who are at risk for contracting shingles. She wants to raise public awareness of the shingles vaccine, recommended for anyone over the age of 50 who is not immunocompromised. The vaccine can also be effective for people who have already had shingles.
“The zoster shot reduces the risk of shingles by 50 percent and reduces risk of postherpetic neuralgia by two-thirds,” Hennessy said. “All Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare clinics offer the zoster vaccine, and so do most of the places that offer major vaccines.”
Hennessy and Sharrow point out, however, that the vaccine is not always covered by insurance for patients under 65.
Sharrow also printed up fliers and set up a table in the back of her church, St. Roman Parish, Milwaukee, for two Masses earlier this spring, hoping to spread the word about the vaccine. She also noted that her faith has helped her endure what has become a difficult spring.
“God’s doing this for a reason. He’s making me stronger, making me help people through my difficulties. It’s been a really hard time,” she said, adding she’s found comfort in devotionals such as praying the rosary.