My Experience with Chickenpox, Shingles, and HIV
Last updated: May 2023
Several years ago, I ended up with shingles. This was a health condition that I was not expecting to experience so early in my life. But it is a condition that those of us living with HIV need to be knowledgeable about. It also commonly affects the elderly and those living with a compromised immune system.
The varicella-zoster virus is the virus that causes chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (zoster). Once somebody has chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus stays inactive in their body. It can later be reactivated as shingles.
When I was a child, I had chickenpox. I grew up in the timeframe when one child contracted chickenpox, the parents in the neighborhood let us all play together. This was a common practice to allow all of us to be exposed to chickenpox and be done with it. I was only 3 or 4 years old when I had chickenpox.
Today, the behavior of the neighborhood moms’ from my childhood would be frowned upon. The culture around chickenpox has completely changed nowadays. There is a chickenpox vaccine that helps prevent children from acquiring chickenpox. My nieces have had this vaccine as part of their childhood vaccinations; which explains how my 10-year-old, 9-year-old, and 5-year-old nieces have not had chickenpox.
Shingles is like a secondary infection in somebody who has had chickenpox previously in their life. An individual may also develop shingles more than once or not at all. Generally, Shingles is a rash that stays on either the left or right side of your body. My doctor explained that it is most frequently seen on the torso or the face.
One morning I woke up and felt several bumps on my back on the right side. At first, it did not itch. But I could see red bumps on my back in the mirror. Since I could feel and see the bumps, I was slightly concerned that something bit me in my sleep. After having the bumps for about a day, it became intensely itchy. At this point, the area was more annoying than painful.
When the bumps became more like blisters, I called my infectious disease doctor for an appointment. As soon as I lifted my shirt to show her the rash, she told me I had shingles. She gave me lidocaine patches that I could use on the rash until the blisters opened. This would help with the pain to a degree. She also gave me an antiviral medication to stop the virus from replicating. This was a different type of antiviral from the HIV medications.
Itchy and painful
It ended up being an extremely unpleasant experience, which lasted for several weeks. The rash did stay on one side or ‘half’ of my body. It also eventually became itchy and then extremely painful. Since my nieces have never had chickenpox, I ended up staying away from them until my shingles had healed. This was difficult but we did not want to risk them getting chickenpox from me.
What has been your experience with chickenpox or shingles?
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