Learn with Dr. Brainiac: shingles

No matter how much we know, there is always something new to learn.

Here’s what I knew about shingles:
– it’s related to the virus that causes chickenpox – varicella
– it’s most often seen in older people (usually older than 60 years old)
– it’s painful
– there’s a vaccine

Here’s what I now am more sure about:
– it’s what happens when the chickenpox virus, which can stick its instructions into your own genome, is reactivated: the instructions for making more chickenpox virus are followed by your cells, and your cells start making new copies of the virus

…it’s too much like the recent plots of crime dramas I like to watch: sleeper cells waking up with the intent to harm America!

Here’s what I just learned:
– we really don’t know why the virus stops hiding in your cells and re-emerges
– it’s not just older people who can get shingles, although they’re the most common
– the cells where the virus has been quietly hiding are usually nerve cells (which is why it hurts)
– the pain of shingles tends to happen only on one side of the body
– most people get a chickenpox-type rash with shingles, but not everyone, and the rash can be in one small part of the body or widespread
– you can treat shingles with an anti-viral drug!

So, who can get it? Pretty much anyone – it can affect anyone who had chickenpox. Turns out it can affect anyone who had the vaccine, which I learned from the CDC is not like the influenza vaccine and dead, but a weakened virus. (I never had chickenpox, but I was vaccinated as a teenager. I do have some stuff in my medical history that makes me susceptible to some oddities – I’m in my 30s, so I’m younger than most shingles patients.)

Here’s where I learned stuff:
– my doctor (really!)
PubMed
Mayo Clinic
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
the CDC

In case you hadn’t guessed, yes, I have been diagnosed with shingles. It hurts to sit in desk chairs right now, so I’m not planning on blogging for a few days, while I’m on the antivirals. But I wanted to post here to say that yes, scientists can learn stuff about science all the time, too, and we can also start out with very little information about stuff that affects our own health!

For the record, I regretted being vaccinated for about five minutes after hearing my diagnosis. Chickenpox can be super awful for adults, even deadly, and it’s so common that I know I would have risked being way sicker than I am now if I hadn’t been vaccinated. Although I do hope that the vaccine has changed in the fifteen years since I had it and doesn’t make it easier to get shingles for people who get it now!

Stay healthy out there!

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