You know you are getting old when you develop the Shingle’s rash. What confused me was the really uncomfortable back pain and skin sensitivity I experienced before the rash developed. It was actually a relief to see the rash and realize I didn’t have a kidney stone or kidney infection.
I am no stranger to skin conditions. I have dealt with hiker’s rash, uncontrollable itching on my arms and neck, and small patches eczema. So when I develop a weird hyper-sensitivity on my back and legs, I figured it was some new iteration of a previous condition. Plus, we were having an unusually warm and sunny winter and I was doing lots of yard work, cutting down trees, installing new raised planter beds, and occasionally stripping off my clothes to soak up some sun.
Back Pain Of The Shingles
After a strenuous weekend of yard work I noticed the skin on parts of my back and legs had become very sensitive to touch. The best way to describe it was like mild sunburn. There were even a couple places around my waist that felt like they had been scratch, but there were no visible scratch marks.
On Friday night of that week my lower back started to hurt. This was right above the lumbar region where the kidneys are located, primarily on the right side. The sensitivity and pain radiated from the spine area, around my waist. It was difficult to sleep and I did lots of tossing and turning. On Saturday morning I got up, had some coffee, read the morning paper and felt better, ready for another weekend of tackling the backyard.
The back pain returned Saturday night, only worse. In the morning the pain would subside. I learned that just standing or walking around made the back pain go away and the more coffee I drank, the better I felt. But I still had the skin sensitivity.
Sunday night was the worse. I figured I had tweaked my back with all the bending over building the raised garden beds. On Monday morning the pain wasn’t going away, even with copious amounts of really strong coffee. I then surmised that maybe I had a kidney stone. I started drinking lots of water, and coffee. I started feeling like I had the flu. I was achy, cold, fatigued, and not happy.
In addition to the back pain, I was having heightened sensation in my urinary tract. It wasn’t painful, just an enhanced sensation of needing to urinate and sensitivity of the muscles working to start and stop the flow of urine. Now I figured I had a kidney infection and would be dead in a couple of days. The only problem was my urine was clear, I wasn’t running a fever, and it didn’t really hurt to urinate. By this time I was popping ibuprofen like candy, so that was helping to dull the pain.
The Rash, It Must Be Shingles
Tuesday evening I took a shower and this rash had blossomed around my waist and butt. The most uncomfortable outbreak was around my couch and between my legs, not to mention it just looked awful. I was the perfect candidate to have a flare up of the herpes zoster virus also known as Shingles when it manifests itself as a rash. I was over 50, had chicken pox as a child, and had not had the Zostavax vaccine to prevent Shingles.
As the rash developed on my left side, the internal back pain subsided. On the right side of my body I had four large welts like super-sized mosquito bites. Those welts really itched. Sleeping was still uncomfortable, but the pain wasn’t as bad. I also didn’t feel quite as achy. Unlike a rash that is itchy, similar to numerous episodes with poison oak, this Shingle’s rash is painful, like bad sunburn in my case. I sprayed some Solarcain sunburn spray to alleviate the pain. Unfortunately, since the rash around my back, waist, and butt, just sitting to work seems to irritate it. But the spray seems to have helped.
Another trick to reduce the pain and some of the mild itching was hydrocortisone cream. I would slather on the hydrocortisone cream and I could get through the night without itching too bad, but I still felt achy.
By Thursday I felt noticeably better in terms of reduced fatigue and chills. The rash was irritating and the welts were itchy, but I felt like I was getting back to normal. However, the skin sensitivity remained and the skin pain increased. One analogy is like wearing a shirt with 400 grit sand paper on the inside. Another way of putting it was the skin ached like your muscles do after a hard work out. While at rest there is no pain, but when you move around the skin and the muscles just under the skin ache. The final analogy is like having a European hot wax treatment, every time you bend over or move, with none of the benefits of the hair removal!
I finally made an appointment with the doctor’s office and one quick glance at the rash and she said, “Yep, you got the shingles bad.” Since most of the rash, which looked like someone had taken a paint brush and painted my back, butt, and leg a nasty red color, was drying up and fading, she didn’t prescribe me any topical ointment or cream. I did learn that I most likely transferred the rash to my forehead by scratching some of the rash blisters on my leg and transferring the virus to above my eye.
The doctor did put me on the antiviral drug Famciclovar to pump up my immune system to fight the herpes zoster virus ravaging my body. She also told me about a new Shingles vaccine called Shingrix. Two medical professionals have told me that the Shigrix vaccine is more effective than Zostavax, but I was not given any documentation to confirm that. I did talk to my Walgreen’s pharmacist and I was quoted $169 per dose (2018 Feb. 20) and you need two doses. I was also told that Shingrix would start to be covered by some health insurance plans by the middle of 2018.
I can’t get the vaccine until my current outbreak clears up. If the Shingles were only a one week episode like a normal cold or flu bug, I’d probably pass on the vaccine. But I’m beginning the second week of the Shingles and am told it could take four weeks to run its course. For $340, without insurance coverage, I might just pop for the Shingles vaccine. I have a high tolerance for discomfort and pain, but I can see some people being completely debilitated by Shingles. So the vaccine might be in order to ward off feeling miserable for 3 to 4 weeks.
Shingles Vaccine Side Effects
Through 2018 and into early 2019, the Shingrix Shingles vaccine was in short supply and many pharmacies had no inventory. I was put on a waiting list in 2018 and finally got a call in April 2019. The pharmacist said I might feel under-the-weather after the shot, she was correct. While I have never had any symptoms with either the pneumonia or flu vaccine, the Shingles vaccine hit me almost immediately. My shoulder, where I received the shot was very sore for two days. Within hours I felt like I had the onset of a flu bug: achy, tired, headache, foggy brain.
Fortunately, ibuprofen dampened most of the side effects. Of course, Shingrix is a two-part dose, so I have to go back in 4 to 6 months for another shot. If you get the vaccine, which is still better than the Shingles rash, be prepared to feel icky for a day or two.
Update April 27, 2021: The side effects were worse than I wrote about. I had severe and prolonged shoulder paralysis. The FDA has issued a warning about the muscle weakness attributable to the Shringrix vaccine. Here is how my muscle paralysis progress FDA Warning on Shingrix Shingles Vaccine Mirrors My Experience.