MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — Shingles. You likely don’t think about it, until you have it. Growing up, you may have heard the virus is something that only affects people your grandparents’ age. That’s not always true.
The shingles virus doesn’t care how old you are. Even children can get it. You could be in your teens, 20s, 30s or 40s.
Cherish Lombard woke up one morning and couldn’t open her left eye. Then a blister formed, followed by more blisters spreading up her forehead, into her scalp, and down the left side of her face. She was hospitalized for weeks, with excruciating pain shooting from those areas down her spine.
Anyone who’s had chickenpox will never forget those horrible, incredibly itchy blisters. Shingles blisters produce pain, then, as they’re healing they leave you with an “un-itchable” itch.
Mobile resident Carrie Meredith, who was diagnosed with shingles at age 20 said, “Now, that to me was the hardest part was that itch like crazy. I was constantly trying to find a way to rub my eye because I felt like I always had something in it, but there really wasn’t anything that I could do about it.”
If you had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, you may get shingles.
“Once a patient has had chickenpox, then the virus will lie dormant within the dorsal root ganglia, within the nerves,” said Dr. Ashleigh Butts-Wilkerson, Family physician with Infirmary Health. “And then later, whenever a patient is having an outbreak, it activates and then travels down the nerves to the skin.”
The shingles virus affects more people than you may realize. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it attacks about one million people in the U.S. every year.
“I have seen it as young as seven years old,” Dr. Butts-Wilkerson. “And then I’ve seen it up into our elderly population.”
Dr. Butts-Wilkerson says an outbreak is typically caused by something that affects almost every single one of us, every single day.
“Any type of stress tends to do it,” she told Lombard.
The virus can also spread through blister fluid, which Dr. Butts-Wilkerson says can live on a solid surface, like a doorknob, for up to 24 hours.
Before Carrie Meredith was diagnosed with shingles, she had been to the beach. She initially thought sunburn was making her feel tired and weak. She went to see her doctor when she couldn’t get rid of a stabbing headache, that was followed by blisters.
“They started traveling down my face and it was on the right side of my face and it was right above my eye at this point,” said Meredith.
Doctors put her on steroids and an antiviral medication. Still, they were concerned she may lose vision in that eye.
“I went to bed that night, woke up the next morning and it had like attacked my eye overnight,” said Meredith. “It was blurry. I could see light, but if I had closed my left eye, I could not make out anybody in the room. Over the next three or four months, it was back and forth at the doctor. Sometimes my vision was a little bit better, sometimes it was a little bit worse.”
Meredith says the pain was unbearable.
She said, “I described it as a lightning bolt, like it would come out of nowhere. Bring you to your knees. I would be in tears.”
Early warning signs in the majority of shingles cases are severe headache or muscle aches that won’t ease, feeling worn out, and fever. Then the blistering rash appears.
Dr. Butts-Wilkerson warns, “Don’t ignore those initial signs! See a doctor immediately!
“We tend to get better results with our treatment if we start it within that first 48 to 72 hours of an actual shingles outbreak,” she said.
The longer you wait to see a doctor, the more damage the virus can cause, like Ramsay Hunt Syndrome the drooping of one side of your face. It can also lead to permanent nerve damage. If the rash is anywhere on your head, immediate treatment could save you from lifelong eye complications, like blindness.
Your doctor may also recommend the Shingrix vaccine, to help lower your risk of getting shingles, or, getting it again.
“Shingrix is approved for those who are 50 and older, and it’s also approved for patients who are 19 and older if they have an immunocompromising condition,” Dr. Butts-Wilkerson said.
Twelve years after her shingles outbreak, Carrie Meredith still can’t see as well as she once could.
“Most of the time when I’m trying to focus on something, you’ll see me shift my head just a little bit so my left eye can focus in,” she said.
She says she’s used to that now and these days, she’s focusing on her family and reducing stress, and also helping the children at Faith Academy, who know her as their favorite guidance counselor, stay stress-free so they never have to know what it feels like to have shingles.