WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SHINGLES

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By Deb Escobar, 17 Oct 2018

I had a recent health crisis that taught me some lessons I wish to share. It started with a simple earache which got worse over the course of a couple of days. When I went to my general practitioner’s office, they diagnosed an infection and gave me antibiotics. Two days later, I awoke during the night with great pain in that ear, extending from the jawline to the top of my skull. It was a shock when I looked in the mirror. The lobe was cherry red and so swollen it no longer looked like an ear. I waited until morning and since it was a Sunday, had my husband drive me to the emergency room.

The immediate diagnosis was cellulitis that required IV antibiotics, so I was admitted. This was lucky for me because within two days the hospital doctors realized I did not have cellulitis, and diagnosed Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, a variation of shingles that hits the ear canal and nerves on the side that is affected. The right side of my face, my lips, and my tongue was paralyzed. I had an excruciating headache and constant loud ringing in the ear. I was given pain medication for the first couple of days, along with an antiviral medication by IV. Taking prednisone with the antiviral greatly increased the odds of recovering from the paralysis. Studies say that it is crucial to begin the antiviral/steroid combination within three days, so I was lucky to be diagnosed so quickly. Within a week, I got my smile back. Two months later, I am still struggling with vertigo/dizziness that causes loss of balance, tinnitus, and lagging energy, along with a small amount of hearing loss in that ear. My eyelid on that side droops a bit, but I count myself lucky that most people don’t notice. The doctor is hopeful the nerves will heal with time, but it could take several months. Physical therapy, which I am supplementing with acupuncture, should help with vertigo.

Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus that lies dormant within the nerve cells in 99% of the population. Anyone who has had chicken pox has this virus in their body. The older you are, the greater your chances of getting shingles. When the virus activates, the first sign is a rash and either burning, a tickle, or pain, but since my rash was inside the ear I could not see it. The telltale blisters at the site of the rash do not come out for a couple of days after the first symptoms – which is why I was not diagnosed immediately in my doctor’s office or in the hospital ER.

I had seen commercials for the vaccine, and thought I would talk to the doctor about it at my next checkup, but I got sick before that happened. I also never knew that there were so many variations of shingles, and complications that can affect vision (when the rash occurs near the eye), loss of hearing, muscle weakness or paralysis, inflammation of the brain, etc. Even the everyday variety of shingles can cause scarring and pain that lasts for a long time after the blisters themselves have healed.  I also discovered that the new vaccine, called Shingrix, is 97% effective in preventing shingles, lasts for longer than five years, and is recommended for anyone over 50 years of age, even if you had the earlier type of vaccine (which was only 57% effective). Even if you do get shingles after receiving Shingrix, it will be a mild case.

Shingrix is a two-shot vaccine, made with an inactive (not live) virus, that is taken two months apart. The most common side effect is a sore arm. Though you should always consult with your doctor on any health options, doctors do not carry this vaccine in their office – you have to get the shots at a pharmacy. It is even recommended that those like myself, who have already had shingles, be vaccinated because you can get shingles more than once. You do have to wait a few months between the active infection and receiving the vaccine. You can believe I will run, not walk, to the pharmacy to get the vaccine as soon as I am able, because I never want to go through something like this again, especially when it is so preventable.

Please be an advocate for yourself and also tell your family and friends who are over 50. It may just save a great deal of pain for yourself and those you love.