What is Shingles?
Fifty-nine year-old Jay Pope is an avid trout fisherman. He often says that fishing is his only opportunity to escape an intensely stressful executive position. After a recent trout fishing trip, he noticed what seemed to be a rash caused by poison ivy around his waist. He tried his regular poison ivy treatment but it had no effect at all, and even three weeks later the rash showed little sign of healing. Even worse, the pain of the rash seemed to originate deep inside his abdominal muscles. The pain was not just in the skin itself.
Last year twelve-year-old Lucy had a bad case of chicken pox. For weeks and weeks while she was rehearsing her part in a school musical, she had an itchy nose. Her parents thought it was just an allergy. Just before she was to perform in a school musical, she developed an intense burning pain around her mouth. She was not going to miss the opportunity to sing her solo, so she didn't say anything to her parents and arrived at the school for costumer and makeup. Her parents dropped her off at the school wishing her luck but not taking a careful look at their daughter. Only when she reported for makeup did the teacher notice a painful, oozing, red rash around her eyes. Lucy also developed a sudden, high fever.
Seventy-seven year-old Pat Pintero owns a high-profile hair salon. She is famous for doing the hair styles of the rich and famous, but for the last year she has been going through severe financial difficulties that have led her to consider closing her business. One morning she was putting on her makeup when she noticed a strange redness across her cheeks. Thinking it probably was an allergy, she used a little blush to make the rest of her skin match the reddish color. When she got into her salon and looked into the mirror, just before the first of her day's appointments, Pat was shocked to see her face was covered with what looked like chicken pox. Pat canceled her appointments for the day, and the week, and the rest of the month, and was only able to go out without heavy makeup three months later.
All of these unfortunate people had shingles. Shingles, also known as zoster, is a viral infection affecting both skin and the nervous system. Shingles ends in an "s," but can be treated as either a singular or plural noun. Some word etymologists believe that the painful blisters known as shingles get their name from their resemblance to shingle, beach sand that is coarser than regular sand but finer than pebbles.
Other etymologists believe that the word shingle came from the Latin word cingulum, meaning belt. The rash shingles causes looks something like a belt on the skin. The medical term for shingles, zoster, comes from a Greek word for belt.
Authors Mary-Ellen Siegel and Gray Williams describe shingles as "an old enemy and an enemy of the old." Shingles has been recognized as a disease condition since ancient times. And although shingles more commonly attacks the skin in later life, the story of twelve year-old Lucy Pintero is not unique. I myself came down with shingles a year after having chicken pox, at the age of eleven.
The virus that causes shingles is the varicella-zoster virus, which has the same effects on the human immune system as the varicella virus that causes chickenpox. Children who have never been exposed to the varicella virus or the varicella-zoster virus don't have memory cells in their immune systems to fight the infection, so they develop the symptoms of chicken pox.
Adults who have once had chickenpox continue to carry the virus in their nerve cells throughout life. There are no symptoms until a temporary dip in the strength of the immune system lets the virus to escape. The second time the virus causes active infection, which can be as long as 80 years after the initial infection with chicken pox, it again causes painful blisters, but only on the skin over the nerve where it had been hibernating.