April Wolanek will never forget the strange stinging sensation on one side of her stomach.
“It was a discomfort. A burning, kind of a tingling, when I leaned up against my desk,” she said.
“I didn’t think anything of it until I got a rash a couple days later. Then it was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding.’”
Wolanek, who’s an Advanced Registered Nurse Practicioner at Cascade Valley Hospital’s Granite Falls Clinic, knew the symptoms of the shingles virus from a clinical standpoint, so she didn’t consider herself a candidate.
Seniors or those with weakened immune systems are susceptible to infection. She was 36 and healthy.
She asked a colleague who’s a doctor for a second opinion. Sure enough, it was shingles.
It was a baffling diagnosis at the time. It turns out, though, that Wolanek was immune compromised.
She didn’t know it then, but she was pregnant.
In pregnancy, “the immune system is down. It is working toward all these other things,” she said.
Most pregnant women do not develop shingles. More common conditions lowering the immune guard are HIV, chronic health issues, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Wolanek, now 38, has given birth to two healthy children since the outbreak of shingles and had no relapse.
She had a mild case. Other people aren’t so lucky. For some, the pain is severe.
Shingles is chickenpox with an attitude.
It is caused by the chickenpox virus, but instead of cute little itchy spots it leaves a trail of blisters and wicked nerve pain.
It has been described as feeling like being burned by a sharp hot poker. A creepy thing that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The weirdest feeling ever. It causes oddities such as a drooping eyelid and facial paralysis.
When it strikes, people often think something is horribly wrong. It’s horrid, but not fatal, though it might seem like it at the time.
About 1 million people in the U.S. get shingles every year. A third of all adults will get it in their lifetime. Children also can get it if they’ve had chickenpox. Shingles isn’t contagious, but contact with the virus can cause a person to develop chickenpox for the first time, which can later lead to shingles.
Shingles gets its start from chickenpox, once a disease rite of childhood. The chickenpox vaccine for children does more than nip the pox in the bud.
“You cannot get shingles if you never had the chickenpox,” Wolanek said. “That’s why it is important to vaccinate the kids.”
A case of chickenpox lets in the varicella-zoster virus. Once in, it never leaves. The virus moves into the nerve cells and lays dormant. It can languish forever or become reactivated by an immune trigger or age into shingles.
A shingles vaccine, which decreases the risk and severity, is recommended for those 60 and over. Some insurance companies will pay for the $200-plus shot after age 50.
Kids get the chickenpox shot and seniors get the shingles shot … so what about all the presumably healthy people in between?
Know the symptoms: Pain, tingling or burning on one side. Then red patches emerge with a single stripe of tiny blisters. It follows a classic pattern defined by a dermatone, an area mainly supplied by a single spinal nerve root.
“It’s a unilateral rash following a dermatone. It doesn’t cross midline. It’s as if someone marked with a Sharpie to follow that dermatone,” Wolanek said. “If it’s on both sides of your body, it’s not shingles.”
Other symptoms might include abdominal pain, fever, chills, general ill feeling, genital sores, headache and drooping eyelid.
Act fast: Early treatment with antiviral drugs can shorten the course and agony.
“It kills the virus and sends it back into remission,” Wolanek said.
Hope for the best: The pain eventually will get better.
Brace for the worst: You can only get chickenpox once. Shingles can come back for more.
Andrea Brown; 425-339-3443; firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the vaccine
A shingles vaccine is recommended for those 60 and over. Some insurance companies will pay for the shot, which can cost more than $200. Check with your insurance carrier to see what’s covered.