Shingles belong on the roof

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It seemed at first as if a small insect were flapping its wings under the skin of my forehead. Over the next two days, that odd, feathery, tingling sensation transformed into a torrent of pain that extended from my scalp into my brain. Yet there wasn’t a single outward sign of whatever was going on inside.

Still, before I could even finish describing the trajectory of my symptoms, my doctor diagnosed me. Shingles.

But weren’t those painful bumps on the back or stomach? Don’t you have to be over 60 to get them? After all, that’s the age group that is supposed to get the shingles vaccine (see “Explaining shingles and how to avoid it” from our February issue).

But in my crash course on the unwelcome return of the virus that causes chicken pox and then lies in wait in your nerves for decades, I discovered that a minority of shingles sufferers get it on their faces. It can take several days for the telltale blisters to appear. And shingles can strike at any age, although older adults are most vulnerable.

Its odd name has nothing to do with shingles on your roof (at first I thought maybe the rash resembled them), but rather with its Latin name, cingulum, which means "belt." In some people the rash can take on a belt-like apprearance around the torso.

Shingles is not only excruciatingly painful, it can lead to permanent vision loss if it’s around the eye area, as mine is.

The lesson: Don’t procrastinate in getting the shingles vaccine. And if you do suspect shingles, get to your doctor immediately. Early treatment with anti-viral medication can shorten the duration of the disease and has been shown to prevent the pain that can linger in about 10 percent of shingles patients for months or even years after the rash disappears.

Medicare covers the cost of the vaccine. Don’t have Medicare yet? Consider this: The cost of the vaccine is about $200 if your health insurance plan doesn’t cover it. The cost of a week of anti-viral medication is exactly the same. But when you buy the medication, the pain is in more than just your wallet.

Have you had shingles? Share your story in the comment area below.