Updated: Apr 7
*Post warning: I do include pictures of this skin condition. Please view with caution.
Last April was certainly a moment of time that we will never forget. The United States was a just a few weeks into lockdown, anxiety was at an all time high and just when I thought things could not get much worse, something started happening to my body.
At the tail end of March 2020, I started noticing this incredibly strange tingling on the right side of my upper body. Being a right-side sleeper, I assumed I needed to switch to my left for a few days and brushed it off. While the tingling continued, a headache arrived. I regularly get migraines, but this headache was debilitating. I could barely look at a screen, had bags under my eyes, and no amount of migraine medicine was helping. Then on April 5th everything changed. I woke up to what I thought was hives – all these red marks on my back, under my right arm and on my chest. Every hour that passed it was getting worse, and worse, and worse.
But we were 2 weeks into the pandemic. Going to a doctor’s office was NOT an option. Going to the hospital was unthinkable. All I could think was “what is happening to my body?”
Later that day I figured out how to set-up a telehealth urgent care call and it was disappointing to say the least. With the focus on high-risk COVID-19 patients, the first doctor told me nothing was wrong, just some dry skin – despite me telling this doctor that my skin felt like it was on fire.
I couldn't sit still. My fiancé and I tried to go on a walk to distract me, but when the wind hit the mark on my chest I literally screamed in pain it was so sensitive. There was a point I was sitting in my closet shaking and bawling my eyes out. Poor Andrew tried to do everything he could, but I was truly helpless that night. I cried all night long from the pain and by the time I woke up from next to no sleep, it had gotten even worse.
Reluctantly I set-up another telehealth call and this time I thankfully got a doctor who was immediately alarmed by my condition. After explaining the intense pain, jolting sensation, and showing her what transformed into a terribly inflamed rash, she looked at me over the video and said, “I don’t often see this in 27 year old’s, but you have the shingles virus." …WHAT?
Finally, it all made sense - but I was shocked. I thought only those 55+ got the shingles virus? How could this happen to me? WELL, turns out if you ever had the chicken pox (which I did as an infant), extreme stress and/or traumatic worldly events can trigger the virus in your body as an adult in the form of the shingles.
I was so worried and overwhelmed about the coronavirus that I literally triggered a dormant virus in my own body.
What is the Shingles virus?
It’s been 1 whole year and I am still experiencing side effects and treatments from this virus. The first month was the hardest. Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus and when first active presents itself as a painful rash on one side of your body. Following a chicken pox infection, the inactive virus lies in your nerve tissue. This explains why when it ‘wakes back up’ the early signs are a tingling sensation.
During the active period, weeks 1-4, it is imperative that you do not touch the inflamed areas – something that feels impossible when you truly want to scratch your skin off. Doing so can cause scarring, but I learned that scarring would occur no matter what…at least in my case.
How I treated it
Shingles brings two types of pain: 1.) the itching/burning rash, 2.) jolting nerve pain that comes when you least expect it. Following my diagnosis, I was prescribed Valtrex, an antiviral commonly used for chicken pox or herpes, and Gabapentin, an intense nerve pain medication that I only took for the first few days when the pain was truly unbearable.
Before I proceed, let me just note, this is what my doctor prescribed me. Last year when I shared that I was on Gabapentin, I was flooded with people telling me how awful it was, how I could gain 40 pounds, how it's addictive, how it's not easy to come off of, etc. Yes, this drug does have some hefty side effects, however, this virus was caused by stress and in that moment, people who were not my doctor were sending me into a complete panic.
Blogging in itself is all about sharing experience and opinions. However, my goal is never to force my opinions or choices on others. Just because something was a good choice for my condition, doesn't mean it will be the same for someone else, and vice versa. I am a very realistic person who makes thoughtful and educated decisions. I believe in doing your research, consulting with a close group of people, asking your doctor questions and trusting professional advice. My situation was unique to me and my doctor gave me options when I was in dire need of relief. The pain I was experiencing required heavy medication in the initial stages and it was unfortunate that I was persuaded to think otherwise at the time simply based on others opinions. Lesson learned that not all advice is good advice.
In addition to my prescriptions, I tried everything under the sun to ease the redness, pain, and severe itching. I applied calamine lotion, aloe gel (both bottled & fresh from the plant), Benadryl, Lidocaine, Gel patches, oatmeal baths, cool compresses, ice – you name it, I tried it. Truthfully though, the only thing that helped was time.
After 2 intense weeks, the nerve pain, tingling, and itching finally started to subside – but the marks on my skin did not go away. I was left with patches on my back, under my right arm, and the most visible part of my upper chest.
I have scars, stretch marks and cellulite, but nothing has ever killed my confidence like the scar on my chest. It was an eye sore for me. Every time I looked in the mirror all I saw was this terrible wound that would not go away.
I never knew if I would share these photos, but my fiancé Andrew helped me document what this virus did to my skin. It was the worst skin condition I have experienced and one that I felt completely alone dealing with as a 27/28 year old. So, to help anyone else who has experienced this or may in the future, I have decided to include*.
*Please view with caution.
9 Day Progression: Chest
9 Day Progression: Back
As you can see, it was not pretty. Those first months I religiously applied Derma E Scar Gel to cool the areas and then transitioned to Bio Oil once the wounds healed. However, the body needs time to truly heal when it comes to scars, so I waited about 6 months before receiving professional scar treatments from a board certified dermatologist.
Following a connection made on Instagram, I made an appointment with Dr. Day from OneSkin Dermatology who offers services for shingles and scarring. It was truly the best decision I ever made. Treating scars can be seen as vain or unnecessary by some. However, I strongly believe that if something truly bothers you and hurts your confidence, you owe it to yourself to explore your options – and it is no one’s place to judge you for that.
Treating my scar has not only improved its appearance, but it has also helped my mental health and confidence.
With the focus being to treat my chest scar, Dr. Day recommended a 3-step treatment plan. I first received a steroid injection to flatten the scar, my next visit she lasered the area to remove redness and pigmentation, and our final step will be micro needling to smooth out texture. While the scar is still there, it is far less noticeable than it was pre-treatment.
Lingering Side Effects
Fun (unfortunate) fact: it is possible to get the shingles again – and I can’t even begin to fathom that thought.
While I have not experienced any more outbreaks, I do still experience side effects. Since this virus was triggered by stress and anxiety, I’ve had to learn ways to keep calm which hasn’t always been easy in living through a pandemic, postponing/re-planning a wedding, and having experienced the loss of an immediate family member last fall. In my experience, when I get worked up or upset, the scars start to tingle or throb. If external incidents cause that to happen, it’s a warning sign that I need to take a step back from time to time. This might mean deep breathing, taking a walk, putting down my phone, exercising or reading.
The strangest side effect though is when I drink cold water. Yep, the one thing I do the most. I drink a gallon of water a day and drinking cold water brings the strangest sensation to the area on my chest. I almost think it is the cold water rushing past the nerve damage – I’ll need some more research to confirm that one lol.
One year later, both the coronavirus and the shingles virus taught me a lot about myself, my health and my stress. I felt very alone going through the shingles virus at the time because I didn’t want to take away from the tragedy that was/is the COVID-19 pandemic.
This experience truly was the catalyst into valuing skincare as something more than just applying daily moisturizer. This post packed a lot of information, but it's only just the beginning of what I hope to share through this Skin Series. There are still so many more topics to cover and practices I follow that were a result of my shingles outbreak. The experience truly shifted my mindset around what health & wellness means to me.
I am by no means a doctor, but I hope this post has helped you learn a little bit more about this virus. If anything, I hope it can help someone recognize the early signs, cope with the pain, or help someone gain back their confidence through scar treatment.
Each day I look at the scar on my chest, and while it's much smaller, much fainter, and much less painful now - it's a reminder of just how important it is to manage my stress and truly take care of my skin.