Yesterday, while researching videos and articles for my post about Stuart Scott, I ran across a video where Keith Olbermann, noted sports journalist and noted progressive pundit, was leaning on a cane while talking to Scott, who was fighting for his life against appendix cancer. I wrote a note to myself to find out the backstory.
Then Olbermann made it easy for me–on his afternoon show on ESPN2, said that he was using the cane because of an extremely severe case of shingles, sometimes known as herpes zoster. Shingles is actually caused by the chickenpox virus, Varicella zoster. If you have had the chickenpox infection, you don’t actually get cured by ridding yourself of the virus–what happens it that the zoster virus remains latent in the nerve cell bodies and other nervous system bodies. While the virus is in this latent condition, it is ignored by the immune system and there are no obvious symptoms or signs that it’s there.
Then for not well-understood reasons, often years or decades later, the virus again erupts from those nerve bodies down the nerves to cause a viral infection of the skin in the areas around the nerves. The rash area can be extremely painful, but it usually resolves itself within a few weeks.
However, one of the more frequent complications of shingles is a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN is quite painful and debilitating, and usually resolves itself within a few months, though in some people, it can last for years. Shingles sometimes can lead to blindness, and rarely lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death.
If it isn’t clear, let me restate this as best I can–you can ONLY get shingles if you have had chickenpox. And one more thing–chickenpox and shingles are different diseases caused by the same virus. Chickenpox, though it has some serious complications, isn’t nearly as dangerous as shingles.
But back to Keith Olbermann, enough with the medicine. Based on his tweets about it, he had some form of PHN, which probably lead to his need of a cane. I can’t even imagine how painful his shingles were to have required the use of a cane.
To those asking, Shingles feels like you fell 3 flights. On to sharp poison ivy. Which then spontaneously combusts. Emitting toxic fumes.
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) February 20, 2014
For anyone who has had shingles, Olbermann’s description probably hits it out of the park (I cannot resist a good sports metaphor).
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Now, over a few weeks Olbermann tweeted back and forth with fans who had all kinds of weird stuff about shingles. It’s not important to get into all of it, because none of it was based on scientific evidence. After all of this, Olbermann then tweeted:
So last on this subject (until I feel like kvetching again): get the vaccine!
— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) February 20, 2014
Yes, the only sure-fired way to prevent shingles is to get the shingles vaccine. Well, actually there’s two sure-fired ways, the first of which is to make sure you or your child never gets chickenpox in the first place–absent putting yourself or your child into a hermetically sealed bubble, the chickenpox vaccine is the most effective method to prevent chickenpox. (The chickenpox vaccine has been available in most countries, including the USA, since the mid-1990’s, so only those of us born before the mid-1990’s really are at risk of shingles.)
There really isn’t any solid evidence that supports a decent hypothesis as to why the latent virus suddenly reappears. Those with immune deficiency or suppression are very susceptible to shingles, which leads some people to think that anything that might depress the immune system could let the virus return. Stress is one potential cause of the reactivation of the zoster virus, but that’s still speculation. And the old myth that repeated exposure to the chickenpox virus acts like a booster vaccine, keeping shingles at bay? There’s only weak evidence supporting it, and even then, most individuals are still at risk to shingles even if they encounter the virus again and again.
If you think that chickenpox is some minor disease, not very dangerous, try to remember this story. Maybe 10 years later. Maybe 40 years later. The virus will reactivate, and at that point, it is dangerous and painful. With the chickenpox and shingles vaccines, in a generation, shingles may disappear, as there will be fewer and fewer adults who have ever had chickenpox. Of course, some anti-science writer, 30 years from now, will write how chickenpox was never dangerous, and it went away because we ate kale.
Anyways, as Keith Olbermann says, “get the vaccine!” And one other thing–if I had shingles, I would be kvetching all day long to anyone who’d listen.
- Johnson RW, Dworkin RH. Treatment of herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia. BMJ. 2003 Apr 5;326(7392):748-50. Review. PubMed PMID: 12676845; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1125653.