What is shingles?

In many people's minds - sadly, also including doctors - shingles is synonymous with a painful skin rash. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Oh sure, there might be a rash. And it might be painful. Or there might not be a rash. A rash is not the tell-tale symptom of shingles. The pain, however, is.

Shingles is an acute, extremely painful, inflammation of the nerve ganglion. Whichever cluster of nerves is impacted dictates where the pain will occur and also how severe it will be. According to the doctor who finally diagnosed me, the chicken pox virus hides in the nerve ganglion that was closest to the biggest outbreak of the chicken pox. Some folks have the virus hiding in their optic nerve. When that happens, it's called 'occular shingles' and can result in vision loss. Shingles is serious stuff.

In my case, shingles struck my sciatic nerve which - in addition to excruciating pain throughout my right hip - also resulted in some urinary and bowel disorders. Basically, my nervous system was shot in the entire area, which made it difficult to pee or poop. (Sorry if that offends anyone!).

Despite its name, shingles is not a plural. It's singular and is based on the Latin word 'cingulum' which essentially means a band or girdle. Anyone who's come down with shingles can probably attest to the fact that it feels like there's a vise-like grip on the affected area.

As mentioned, shingles is serious stuff. In worst case scenarios, it can affect the brain, liver, and lots of other internal and critical organs. Left untreated, victims are at high risk of what's known as postherpetic neuralgia, a fancy term for what I've come to call simply 'forever pain'.

To reduce the risks, you have to be treated with antiviral meds within 72 hours of onset of the pain (or rash, whichever comes first). That is a hard fast 72-hours so if you suspect shingles, don't delay. Get to your doctor immediately and ask to be tested.

And remember, shingles can strike at any age and anyone who has had chicken pox, regardless of how healthy or old they are, is at risk of shingles.

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