Too Young for Shingles? Not for This 36-year old Nova Scotian

Lindsay was shocked to discover that at age 36, she had shingles.

At first she believed that the pain in her right shoulder was due to a torn muscle. However, when the red marks started to turn into blisters, this nursing student knew that she had shingles.

 ‘It was the worst pain I’d ever felt  and I have three kids,’ said Lindsay – “I never want to go through that pain again.”

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the chickenpox virus. Creating a painful, blistering and itchy rash it is often associated with other symptoms such as headaches and fever.

Diagnosed in October 2018, Lindsay said that the pain lasted almost four weeks and she still has the red marks on her shoulder that might never go away, according to her doctor.

While this viral infection typically affects people 50 and older, about 10 percent of cases occur in people aged 15 to 30.

“Anyone who was infected with chickenpox as a child, will have the chickenpox virus living in their body for the rest of their lives,” said Shelly McNeil, chief of infectious diseases at the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

“As we get older, the immune system is less able to control that virus in the nerve roots around the spine and it can reactivate and cause this linear rash that many people are familiar with as shingles.”

Although shingles can occur in younger adults, those numbers aren’t tracked in Nova Scotia, so it’s hard to know how many under that age are affected. “There has not been an observed increased rate of shingles in the young adult population in Nova Scotia. It’s not a reportable illness so … we may not necessarily know that.”

Heather Costley, 48, found out she had shingles two weeks ago.

“I just had an itchy spot on my neck all of a sudden,” she said. Within hours, it was bumpy, blistering and “intensely itchy.”

“It felt like little needles being pushed into my skin,” said Costley, who lives in Tantallon, N.S.

“Shingles actually crossed my mind but I thought, ‘No, it can’t be, I’m too young.’”

“There can be a number of reasons why a person under 50 would get shingles”, says Shelly McNeil. “One is if people are on medication that suppresses the immune system, such as for Crohn’s disease or arthritis. Another cause is if people are experiencing a particularly stressful time, are sleep deprived or have recently undergone surgery”.

McNeil said people can’t catch shingles if they’ve never had chickenpox.

When it comes to preventing shingles, McNeil shares the importance of keeping to a healthy diet, getting daily exercise, and adequate amounts of sleep.

In the last decade or so, Chafe said that there has been an increase in shingles for people 50 and above, there is still a need for more research for people with shingles under the age of 50. In Lindsay’s case, her doctor mentioned the vaccine but told her she could not get it while she had shingles, it usually has to be done a year after her diagnosis. 

Chafe and McNeil both say a person can get shingles more than once, but that’s even more unlikely for younger people. “It would be almost like getting struck by lightning twice,” McNeil said. “It would be very unusual for someone who was 25 to have an episode of shingles and then get it again until they’re much older unless there’s something else going on.”

Chafe says “Young people shouldn’t have to worry too much about getting shingles, it really is still rare. Even though we’re probably hearing a little bit more about it – maybe it’s because we live in such a connected age that we’re hearing about more cases.”

Regardless, after Lindsay’s experience with the virus, she stated, “It’s something I’m going to seriously look into because I never want to get it again.”

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