Wednesday, 16 July 2014


I have shingles; no, not the kind you use on a roof, the medical kind where you get sharp muscle pain and a painful rash on the skin under attack. Shingles, the medical kind, is a result of the same virus that causes chicken pox in children. In fact you can only get shingles if you have had chicken pox or have been vaccinated against chicken pox. They started in the middle of my back and have spread in a wide band around my waist, stopping at my belly button. This is the nerve under attack.

The virus that causes both chicken pox and shingles works like this; first it gives you chicken pox, then it goes to sleep, then for some unknown reason it wakes up and attacks once again only in more localized fashion. After the body defeats the virus in chicken pox, it goes dormant, finding a nice, cozy resting spot along the spinal cord nerves. There it sleeps, biding its time. Then, in about 25% of people who have had either chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine, it awakens, travels down a nerve pathway to the skin causing pain along the way, and creates an itchy, blistery, puss-filled rash on the skin that usually lasts a week or two.

Doctors don't know what causes the virus to re-awaken although they suspect age, stress or a generally reduced immune system are part of the puzzle, the reason, most likely, it is prevalent in older patients. Doctors do know that it is a neurological condition; in other words it is an illness that attacks via the nervous system. Once present there is little the medical community can do except wait it out, treating the symptoms such as pain and itch, offering little to defeat the actual virus. What medications they do have offer limited results but we use them anyway, hoping for some benefit such as reduced attack or slowed spreading.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. ALS is like that too. Doctors have some idea of what might cause it, but they have no idea as to the why of ALS. It is a neurological condition, attacking the motor neurons. Modern medicine can treat some of the symptoms but cannot treat the core illness. There are medications that may slow ALS down, treatments with limited effectiveness. The comparisons end there but are interesting nonetheless. We know so little about the nervous system and its illnesses. Now I have two of them, two neurological illnesses.

Yesterday when I was diagnosed I was fairly distressed about this. Having had a night to sleep on it, quite literally, I am less distressed, although more uncomfortable. The itching has begun though the muscle pain seems to have gone away. I have discovered that I cannot give shingles to anyone else; if you have the virus within you, you can get shingles. If not, not. I can, however, transmit the virus through contact between the sores on my skin and another person.

All of this means can still cause chicken pox in children who are not vaccinated, children like my new grandson Quinn. So having driven some 1,100 kilometers over two days, I will be able to see him from a distance but will not be allowed to touch him. Rose is fine; she has been vaccinated. In other words, with or without help from me, she can get shingles, most likely in her 60's, well after I am too long gone to be responsible.

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