Saturday, December 3, 2016

Misadventures in Not Running: Shingles?!

tl;dr: Get the shingles vaccine. Yes, even you.

I completed my eighth marathon in October in Melbourne, Australia. Between high winds and being misdirected by well-intentioned course marshals twice, it was a long day. Still, I finished, and was free to enjoy the rest of a two-week stay capped by seeing the Little Penguin Parade—look it up if you’re having a Cute Emergency.

After returning from Oz, I took a complete break from running, both for recovery and to heal a sore Achilles I had tolerated for too long. I got back into the rat race at work and was hit with some standard-issue family aggravation along the way. My impatience with everyday annoyances was mounting. I realized how much I used running to manage daily stress; even mid-distance walks weren’t cutting it.

Just before Thanksgiving, I started having chest pains. I had just had my annual physical two weeks before the race, and my doctor said my chances for a cardiac event were extremely low. What the hell? The pain was more pressing than stabbing, so I decided on self-monitoring rather than panicking. I headed out of town for the holiday.

Over the long weekend, the pain became more constant, and I started breaking out in a weird rash on my chest. An unrelenting headache tag-teamed with the pain to keep me from sleeping properly for several nights--adding to a fatigue which was was out of proportion with my minimal activity level.

Back home, I went straight to the doctor. By now the rash had broken out on my back as well. All of it was only on my left side. The doc took one look and said “Yep, that’s shingles.” The pain was intense and constant. He put it at 7 on the 10-point scale.

I’m nearing the end of a weeklong antiviral regimen, coupled with severe pain meds. I'm on the mend now, but am still only 1.5 weeks into a condition whose typical duration is 2-6 weeks. I’ll spare you the gross details, but just don’t do a Google Images search on shingles, ok?

My point in detailing all this for runners, in particular, is in hopes you’ll do something to help avoid this super-common problem: Get the shingles vaccine.

The one-time shot isn't "recommended" for people under 60, so I always figured "that's something for old people." Nah. Depending on which source you check, 1 in 3 or 4 adults will have shingles. It mostly affects people over 50. I’m 46, but even younger folks aren’t necessarily safe; I have a cousin by marriage who got it when she was 11—in her eye. She can’t wear contacts because of the damage it caused. Another good friend--centurion cyclist, 6min-miler, and general badass--got it when he was 24.

The science is still out on what exactly activates shingles, but most researchers think that a low immune system releases dormant chickenpox virus. Whether that low immunity is caused by running 26.2 miles, or by unmanaged stress from a running hiatus, runners can be especially vulnerable. As can those with cancer or other conditions that cause lowered immunity. Or runners with cancer.

The shingles vaccine doesn’t guarantee you’ll never have an outbreak, but even if you still do, it lessens the severity. My doctor said I can safely get the vaccine a year from now. You can bet I’ll be at his office first thing when they open the doors that morning.

CAVEAT: Consult with a medical professional before getting the vaccine. For instance, according to the Mayo Clinic's site, you shouldn't get the shot if you:

  • Have ever had an allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin or any other component of the shingles vaccine
  • Have a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system
  • Are receiving immune system-suppressing drugs or treatments, such as steroids, adalimumab (Humira), infliximab (Remicade), etanercept (Enbrel), radiation or chemotherapy
  • Have cancer that affects the bone marrow or lymphatic system, such as leukemia or lymphoma
  • Are pregnant or trying to become pregnant