Shingles is a potentially painful virus that hits when your immune system is down and your stress levels are up. There are more than a million cases reported each year in the United States and researchers say the number of new cases is exploding.
There's something else that's changing: It's not just your parents suffering from shingles anymore.
College life for Carline Radaj was fun, but stressful. And that was before she ended up with a painful case of shingles.
“It felt like either I had a pinched nerve or that just someone was constantly stabbing me,” she explained.
When a rash popped up on top of the pain, an internet search led her to the diagnosis. A campus doctor confirmed it, but even they seemed stunned.
“It’s something that happens in older people, so for it to happen to a young college student they were a little bit baffled at that,” said Radaj.
In fact, a lot of people are surprised to hear of someone in college suffering from shingles. But researchers say cases are up six-fold across all age groups, and college kids are no exception.
“Instead of maybe one every three or four months, you may be having two or three each month in the college and that stands out,” said Barbara Yawn, MD, MSc, FAAFP.
Yawn authored a study on shingles recurrences. She says it's tough for someone in college already stressed out to miss class because of shingles. Technically, they're not contagious, but it can be agonizing.
“This was going on for about a week and it was excruciating pain,” said Radaj.
Researchers don't know why it's on the rise.
“We’ve looked at several factors like are there more people that are immunosuppressed, uh ,was it around the time the chicken pox vaccine in children? That isn’t true. Did it have to do with when antivirals were introduced? No. Does it have to do with more people coming to the doctor when they have shingles? Well, a six-fold increase is a little hard to believe for that. So, we’re actually right back where we started. We don't know,” explained Yawn.
They also don't know if these younger shingles sufferers will get it again and again.
“If you got your first at 80 its not very long till you won’t have to worry about it. But if you get your first episode of shingles at 18 or 20, you’ve got another 60-70 years that you’re at risk and our data suggests that the risk of recurrence is higher than the risk of occurrence,” said Yawn.
Well, what can they do about it? A shingles vaccine exists but can currently only be used on people 50 and older.
“So we really don't have anything to offer these people,” added Yawn.
That's not much comfort to Radaj and others like her.
“Hopefully I don’t get it again,” she said.
Researchers say stay tuned the next five years or so for answers. Meantime, they expect that the numbers of younger people getting shingles should start to drop, since many of those students received the chickenpox vaccine. You must have already had the chickenpox in order to get shingles.
Studies on shingles involving Dr. Barbara Yawn: