I got shingles at 30 years old: TOO STRESSED!
I was 30 years old, and I had shingles. People my age are not supposed to get shingles. Shingles is a disease for someone twice my age, or so I thought.
Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, VZV for short. VZV is also the same virus that causes chickenpox.
The painful shingles rash can happen anywhere on the body, but it often appears as a band along a dermatome, an area of skin mainly supplied by a single spinal nerve.
If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you still have VZV in your body. The virus never completely goes away but rather lies inactive in the base of nerve tissues in the spinal cord and brain. However, after many years of lying dormant, the virus can reactivate and cause shingles.
If you’ve had chickenpox, you can get shingles.
There’s a vaccine for shingles, Zostavax, but you’re not allowed to get the vaccine until you’re 50 years old.
And even then, the Center for Disease Control says that protection from the shingles vaccine only lasts about five years, so adults vaccinated before they are 60 might not be protected later in life when the risk for shingles is most significant.
Yet, I would come to find out that shingles in young adults is on the rise. So, what’s causing the increased incidence of shingles?
Stress. Lots of stress.
Stress and Shingles
On the first morning that I noticed the slight rash along the left side of my back, I largely ignored it. I assumed I had some kind of mild skin irritation that would go away on its own.
On the second day, what initially felt like a deep bruise mixed with mild skin irritation suddenly erupted into an excruciating rash that began to blister. Every little movement I made aggravated the inflammation, which sent shock waves of pain radiating through my body.
Reluctantly, I went to see the nurse on staff at the complex where I work. The small medical office gives yearly flu vaccines, can take your blood pressure and temperature, sometimes offers free cholesterol and diabetes screenings. Still, primarily they hand out Advil and recommend you see a doctor if the problem persists.
The nurse on call examined my rash and then handed me some hydrocortisone cream. She thought it looked like an allergic reaction but recommended seeing a doctor if the problem persisted.
The problem persisted. Lying in bed the following day, trying not to move, I knew I needed to see a doctor. The rash was worse, and I was in a lot of pain.
Since it would be a few hours before the walk-in clinic was open, I decided first to visit Dr. Google.
The internet can quickly turn anyone into a hypochondriac. A quick search of general symptoms is likely to return the worst possible, often implausible, scenario. However, this time, rather than leading me to believe I had a brain tumor or was experiencing congestive heart failure, the internet suggested that I had shingles.
Shingles symptoms may include:
- Pain, burning, numbness, or tingling
- Sensitivity to touch
- A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
- Sensitivity to light
- And Fatigue
I had all the symptoms. The only problem was that I wasn’t over 50, immunocompromised, or undergoing chemotherapy.
Hours later, at the doctor’s office, I pulled up my shirt, and the doctor promptly responded, “Yep. Mhmmm. You know what this is, don’t you?”
“I think I have shingles,” I replied.
“You’re right. I see it more and more in people your age. It is brought on by stress.”
However, there is little information in the scientific literature on a young adult or stress-induced shingles. Therefore, these cases, which fall outside the norm, are not well studied.
Stress Induced Shingles
The Ohio State University College of Medicine study suggests psychosocial stressors can affect our immune system modulation and influence health status. For example, psychological and social stress has been shown to reduce immunological control over a latent VZV.
Irwin et al. found that major depression is associated with a marked decline in VZV-specific cellular immunity — our body’s ability to suppress shingles.
The most interesting research I came across was from a study by NASA. Researchers found that healthy astronauts, which before space flight tested negative for VZV in their salvia, tested positive for VZV after space flight. These results showed that shingles could reactivate in healthy individuals as a result of non-surgical stress.
It’s no surprise that flying through space is stressful on the body and mind. Yet, what’s surprising is that my average terrestrial life was inflecting enough stress to reactivate shingles.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that something wasn’t right with me.
I was stressed.
I was working myself too hard
I was working at maximum capacity, but this is how I liked it. I believed that this was how I thrived and was programmed to function. I prided myself on maximizing my life and making the most of my day.
I was working on three big projects at work. I had moved in with my girlfriend a month before, and we were about to move into a brand new apartment across town. I continued to produce a weekly podcast. I was working with my brother to get a company off the ground. All of this was on top of trying to live an active, healthy, intellectually stimulating, social, balanced life.
It was too much.
The warning signs were there, but I either ignored them or assumed them part of everyday life.
I was no longer feeding off the stress; the stress was eating me alive.
It took getting shingles to realize this.
While the singles have gone away, I’m still stressed.
I am, however, less stressed and more open to recognizing when I need to slow down.
Since getting shingles last year, I’ve been:
- Drinking less caffeine (less is relative)
- Meditating most mornings
- Setting aside time to be alone with my thoughts
- Journaling; and
- Leaving my desk at work and taking several short walks each day
I’m no monk. I’m still more stressed than I should be. But at least I’m aware and working on it.
And it only took getting shingles.