Sleeper cells (literally!)

I had the chicken pox when I was 5 or 6 years old, some 33 or 34 years ago. It still stands out in my mind for two reasons: (1) I’d been invited to my first bowling birthday party, and then I came down with the illness and could not go. Being 5 or 6, I didn’t really understand and was bitterly disappointed. (2) Calamine lotion–the smell of which to this day instantly brings back memories of the chicken pox.

About 10 days ago, I got my annual flu shot, in my left arm as always, since I am right-handed. That evening, I started having some pain in my right ribs. It was as if the skin there was ultra-sensitive, so that my shirt, rubbing up against the skin was very uncomfortable. Over the next few days, the pain changed and grew. It began to feel like a pulled muscle, then a torn muscle. It got harder to sleep at night. And a few days ago, I noticed what looked like a mosquito bite near the center of the pain area. It was little bigger than a mosquito bite, but it didn’t go away.

Last night, the pain (for which I normally have a high tolerance) finally drove me to the local urgent care. The diagnosis:

Shingles!

For those who don’t know, Shingles (Herpes zoster) is a viral disease that causes an acute, short-lived version of the chicken pox. When you have chicken pox, a dormant version of the virus remains in your cells, and can stay dormant for years or decades. A flare up is usually caused by a weaker-than-normal immune system. In a healthy person, such as myself, such a weakened condition can be caused by stress. It can also be caused by other trauma. Likely, the flu shot that I got (combined with the stress I have from, you know, a full time day job, an infant, a toddler, a night job, etc.) triggered this episode.

It is treated with targeted antivirals: I’m taking 6 pills/day of this medication. I’m also taking a course of steroids over the next 6 days to help with the swelling. Finally, I was given a painkiller to take in addition to the over-the-counter pain medicine I’ve been taking. When I woke up this morning, I took 10 pills!

I should see signs of improvement in 48 hours or so–if the antivirals take. I’m not exactly sure when the “mosquito bite” showed up, but if it was more than 72 hours ago, there’s a 75% chance the antivirals won’t work and I’ll just have to let the disease run its course.

Of course, it’s good to have a diagnosis, but I worried if this was contagious, what with having an infant at home and going into work. The doctor was very clear: the disease is contagious, but only when the legions are open and only if a person comes into direct contact with them, physically touching them. Unlike chicken pox, this does not affect the respiratory system and cannot be transmitted airborne. Right now, I have one “mosquito bite” and it is not open, so I am not contagious. The “bite” is on my right ribs, so even if it does open, so long as it is covered (say, by a shirt) then it is not contagious.

Mostly, I just want the pain to go away soon. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll keep you posted.

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