On Vacation—With Shingles
When my husband announced that he would be going on a mid-February business trip to Costa Rica and that I could come along, I jumped at the chance. We live in the Midwest, where February is indeed the cruelest month–gray, dreary and cold. I pictured myself lazing beside sunny tropical beaches while he attended his meetings.
But my first morning in Costa Rica, I woke up at our airport hotel to a less welcome sight. A couple of itchy, bug bite-looking bumps were on my right side, just below my armpit. Then I noticed more of the funny bumps in my armpit.
As a health writer, I often research and write about all manner of diseases and conditions. I’d written about the Zika virus, for example, which has been reported in Costa Rica. I’d researched MRSA, a type of staph infection. Had I nicked myself shaving earlier and did I now have a weird infection? Had I been bitten by some strange Costa Rican insect? Or by bed bugs?
Symptoms I Could No Longer Ignore
I tried to toss these thoughts out of my head as my husband and I went about our sightseeing, making our way through tropical mists and rain as we hiked to a volcano and toured a lush park filled with waterfalls, toucans and hummingbirds. We then drove to our coastal resort, where we would stay the rest of the week. The whole time, I kept feeling little stabs of pain and itching under my right arm and on my side.
By the next day, my bumps looked worse, and I felt worse: tired, achy and as if I might be running a low-grade fever. I tried putting lotion on the lesions, but that didn’t seem to help. Antibiotic cream didn’t help either.
At that point, I began to wonder if I should see a doctor, or if I should tough it out until we got home. I’m usually from the ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-go-away-on-its-own school of thought when it comes to bodily aches and pains. But I kept thinking this might be something that could get worse–and that I ought to do something about it.
I started Googling immediate care clinics in the town next to our resort in Los Suenos, then realized there was a clinic on the edge of the sprawling resort property, only a couple of miles away. I called and was able to get right in.
There, a friendly, young, English-speaking doctor examined me, and quickly gave me her diagnosis: shingles.
An Unexpected Diagnosis Far From Home
Say what? I thought shingles were for people 60 and up, the ones in the commercials for the shingles vaccine, right? Plus, shingles are supposed to be excruciatingly painful and these weren’t that bad.
But on the other hand, I had had chicken pox as a child, which means I have the virus in my system. The doctor also asked if I’d had any stress recently. My 16-year-old cat had been very ill and had to be put to sleep shortly before our trip, which had been very upsetting for me. Perhaps this had triggered the virus to activate.
The doctor explained that shingles usually appears on one side of the body, so I’d likely only have lesions on my right side. However, she warned that I might get more as the disease progressed.
She then gave me a prescription for three medications, which were filled by the small pharmacy handily located within the clinic. She prescribed an anti-viral pill, similar to Valtrex; a tube of anti-viral cream to put on my lesions and any new ones that might pop up; and a Vitamin B complex, saying Vitamin B could help ward off the painful nerve pain that some people get as a side effect.
She also advised me to use ice packs to help with the pain and itching, and also told me to avoid direct sunlight, which could make my symptoms worse. So much for lazing in the sun by the pool or beach.
The Benefits of Seeking Treatment Right Away
For the next few days, I continued to feel somewhat sick: tired, slightly feverish, with a little bit of a sore throat. But it wasn’t anything that kept me from hiking around to see the sights, though I did try to stay in the shade as much as possible. The pain wasn’t terrible, either. Sometimes I’d get a shooting or burning pain under my arm, but putting ice on the spots helped. I noticed a red patch beside my eye the day after my doctor visit, but put my medicated cream on it and it went away. Other than that, I didn’t see any spread of the lesions.
When I got home, I made an appointment with my primary care doctor. By that point, I was about a week into my treatment. I brought my medications and the prescription that my Costa Rican doctor had written. The nurse logged the medications into the computer, I think trying to find their U.S. counterpart. Both she and the doctor seemed a bit baffled by the Vitamin B complex, which wasn’t something they normally give for shingles.
I told the doctor I was surprised not to have had more pain with my shingles. He told me the reason my case was mild was because I got treatment within 72 hours. Antiviral medication needs to start this early to be effective, he said.
He also advised me to get the shingles vaccine, though he said I needed to wait until 12 months after my outbreak so the vaccine would be more effective. I learned that getting shingles once doesn’t mean I’ll never get them again. Some people get them repeatedly. I’m hoping this doesn’t apply to me, but plan to get the vaccine to help ensure this doesn’t happen.
Lessons From My Experience
Since my encounter with this common condition (experienced by about one-third of us in our lifetimes, and about 1 million people in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), I’ve heard from several friends who have had their own experiences with the virus–all younger than 60. Several were fortunate like I was to have had relatively mild experiences, with limited pain. One friend, though, had a bad case and wound up with terrible nerve pain afterward.
I’ve also learned that shingles can strike at any age. Even children can get it. All told, about half of shingles cases affect those under 60.
So, if you get weird itchy bumps that look like they could be shingles lesions (and pictures are just a Google image search away), don’t wait to check it out. It’s important to get treated early, within that 72-hour window if possible. See a doctor, even if it means seeking out one in a foreign land.