That Time In College When I Got Herpes Zoster (AKA Shingles)

I stressed myself 'til I messed myself
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Publish date:
September 24, 2014
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health, stress, skin care, college week, health conditions, herpes zoster, shingles

Allow me to regale you with a tale of extreme academia and gross neglect of one’s own well-being. While I remember most of my college years being a bit like summer camp with a diploma, come my junior year I was swamped with a full curriculum of enough credits to probably graduate that fall semester, plus a demanding dramaturgy gig for the theater conservatory after business hours. It was Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and the director chose to “soundtrack” the production to Jeff Buckley’s complete works (it was brilliant and weird).

While I thrive under pressure, the only adverse sign came with a dull ache in my left thigh. I thought that maybe the aching was just my muscles whining post-workout. When it got worse after a few days--feeling like someone was repeatedly giving me a dead-arm on my left thigh--I visited health services, where the staff was equally as perplexed as I was and just gave me some prescription pain killers (and you wonder why kids are so hopped up on pills). Not only did the pain not go away, a patch of itchy, scabby blisters broke out in its place not two days later. Glad you’re still reading, aren’t you?

So back I went to health services thinking my gross leg was a bad reaction to the painkillers, for whatever reason an adverse reaction to a drug would pinpoint the very area I was using it to treat. (I was young and naïve.) The doctor took one look at it and immediately said the words no one wants to hear from a doctor’s mouth, “Hmm, definitely looks like herpes zoster.”

My entire life froze just then at the mention of herpes, but then unfroze for the momentary thought of, You can get leg herpes?? Also what is that weird space-sounding word she said after the H-word?

She said she couldn’t be sure so she referred me to a local dermatologist who could give a proper diagnosis and prescribe treatment. Snapping out of my terror-daze, I asked, “Why do you keep saying that Z-word after herpes?”

“Oh, herpes zoster is commonly known as shingles,” she said, as if EVERYONE KNEW THAT. This is a state school, lady--we don’t even have a pre-med program. I breathed a little easier, since shingles is something I at least had heard of before, but only as an ailment in the elderly. And from what I heard it was very painful and possibly disfiguring. It wasn’t terribly painful as it was uncomfortable and yucky to me, but that’s because I was a supple 20-year-old.

“How’s your semester going so far?” doctor lady asked me. I told her I was pretty busy so this is a huge bummer if I have to sit out some days.

“Ah, that makes sense. Shingles is rare in people your age, but it’s triggered by stress, and only if you’ve had chickenpox before.”

Another fun fact: chickenpox, shingles, and herpes (the sexy kind) are all strains of the same virus, Alphaherpesvirinae. Once you get any of them, the virus lives in your nerves FOREVER and years later may break out of nerve cell bodies, causing a painful rash. Like chickenpox, you’re likely to experience a shingles outbreak just once in your lifetime, but reoccurring outbreaks are possible. They usually go away with treatment within a week or two, and you can be vaccinated.

Since it’s a nerve affliction, the outbreak will only occur within the affected dermatome, which is an area of skin formed by one spinal nerve. These are found in horizontal bands around your body, separated down the middle between your left and right side. So you can only get shingles on one side of your body at a time. Oh joy.

Onto that fateful dermatologist appointment in which I was given an urgent Rx for Valtrex (yep, the same drug used to treat genital herpes and cold sores), which, let me tell you, is totally mortifying as you’re in the student health center waiting room amongst flu-ridden mouth breathers plus my blabby roommate who found nothing wrong with proclaiming loudly in a quiet waiting room, “It’s not a big deal, I had to get a Valtrex prescription once for cold sores!”

I’m of the ilk that considers stress one of those self-indulgent fake ailments, unable to recognize that I am actually incredibly overwhelmed, instead dismissing it as just having a lot to do...until my body rebels. The year before, when I was struggling to figure out how I’d bankroll my next year on campus, it was constant hive outbreaks, and now shingles. School should be the end of the world, right?

While I had that sentiment at the forefront of my mind, I don’t think I ever let myself reflect on how much I was doing, I just knew it had to get done. Lesson being: don’t think you’re ABOVE being stressed. We’re all human and we all have to take care of our human minds and bodies.

Lots of folks have inspiration posters, tattoos, or totems to remind them to take a breather every once in a while and chill out. I however have a unique constellation of shingles scars on my left leg to remind me to chill the F out every now and then.

Do you have any tricks for de-stressing? Have you stressed your way into a health condition? Share your stories!