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I got shingles at 29

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How he told Fortesa Latifi

I was hiking on a mild winter’s day in eastern Tennessee. It was Saturday and I was wearing my favorite hoodie, you know, the one that fits you so well you keep it for a decade. But that day, something felt strange. It felt like an object was on the hood of my sweatshirt, rubbing the right side of my neck. I kept pulling on the hoodie and scratching the uncomfortable skin the entire hike. When I got home and there was nothing visible on the hoodie, I threw it in the washing machine because I was sure it had stained something like poison ivy during the hike. When I took off the hoodie, my skin felt less irritated, which made me even more confident.

The next morning, I had a strange breakout on my neck. The next morning, I tied my hair into a ponytail and my husband noticed a lump the size of a pencil eraser behind my right ear. Between the scratching, the tearing, the bump, and the strange fatigue I’d been feeling, I knew it was time to see a doctor. I made an appointment for that afternoon, and when the doctor examined me, she knew immediately what was wrong. I had herpes.

I was shocked. Didn’t shingles happen only to older people? How much older? He was only 29 years old. But as the doctor kept talking, other pieces began to fall into place. How tired he was, the rash on my face, the lump behind my ear – they were all related to shingles, which is a condition anyone can get if they have ever had chickenpox. I hadn’t even thought for a second that I might be experiencing fatigue due to whatever is happening to my face. But now she knew, it was shingles, and it was more than a rash.

Some people with severe cases of shingles have entire sides of the body covered by the rash. My case was milder than that, but it was still incredibly painful. My shingles focused on the right side of my neck, which was covered in tender and painful bumps. I remember feeling like my skin would literally tear if I moved my head or neck. I felt like I would find tears on my skin from the pain if I looked in the mirror. He was incredibly sore, as if he had been clenching his jaw hard. It was painful to stretch or move in any way. The pain lasted about four days. I did my best to stay comfortable with the cold sore cream and antibiotics. I didn’t wear clothes that touched my neck and kept my hair tied back and away from the rash.

Those first few days were so overwhelming. I never expected to have shingles at all, let alone before my 30th birthday. To add to the stress, I found out that I was pregnant a few days after my shingles diagnosis. Although my husband and I had been trying to have a baby, we had only been trying for a month. I was surprised to get pregnant so quickly and have to deal with the pregnancy in addition to a diagnosis of shingles. Then a few weeks later, at eight weeks pregnant, I had a miscarriage. It was such an emotional whirlwind: the pain, the shingles, the thought of being pregnant, and then all of a sudden not being pregnant. (Fortunately, I got pregnant again a few months later and everything went well. Our daughter is now 7 years old).

Now most of the symptoms of shingles are gone, but when I’m really overwhelmed, tired, or stressed, I can feel the pain again. When I have overextended in some way, I have recurring pain in the places where I had shingles. But I’m lucky to have recovered for the most part.

After having shingles, I called my mom and told her how much pain I had been feeling and how I didn’t want her to experience that. She was 50 then, which is when it is advised that you get the shingles vaccine, and he went straight to his doctor and got it. That was a relief to me. I want everyone to get vaccinated against shingles when they are eligible. It is just an easy way to prevent unnecessary suffering.

I wish more people knew about shingles, and what can happen to young people. It’s so weird, last month my husband and I were on vacation with a group and one of my friends said she had poison ivy. We all thought she had some kind of infection or rash on the beach, but it still bothered her, so she went to a clinic and lo and behold, she had shingles. I felt so stupid, like I knew how to tell him to get a checkup. But even when it happened to you when you were young, it’s hard to remember that it doesn’t just happen to older people.

The sooner a healthcare provider sees you, the less likely you are to have symptoms that get worse and last longer, so if you feel weird or have a rash, you’ll want to get checked out right away. Better safe than sorry!

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