So Stressed? Shingles among stressed college students is not uncommon

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By CECELIA MARSHALL

One swift band of red rash stretched out in a band across my rib cage to my back in a perfect horizontal formation stopping wear my lungs ended.  Undoubtedly I assumed it had been from the direct heat I had endured from being outside the entire weekend or a skin irritation from a new laundry detergent I switched to recently.

But when no amount of scratching could quell the constant itch or handful of lotion could soothe the fiery burning that radiated from the rash, its cause was more complex than a change in temperature or cleaning solution and the realization set in that the toil was far from finished with this virus.

Shingles. Not what you find on your roof or what some may associate with leprosy or the no-longer existent scurvy, shingles is now something not only the elderly should be aware of.

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The same virus, varicella zoster, which caused your chicken pox as a kid, causes shingles in adults who have already had the childhood disease.  But instead of “the pox” when you got to miss “Show and Tell” at school for a week while your mom smeared ointment on your back, your hands were taped with mittens to keep from scratching and all you wanted to do to alleviate the itching sensation was to throw your body on gravel or sandpaper, the skin around the rash tingles and burns and then often becomes extremely painful to the point a light brush of clothing can trigger an abrupt wave of intense pain.

The virus, varicella zoster, still dwells in the roots of your nervous system and can creep up on you and reactivate anytime your body is overly stressed and the immune system becomes weak.  While this is known as an elderly person worry, we shouldn’t get too comfortable in our own youth.

Stress causes shingles the most.  As college students, we know stress like an annoying great-aunt.  We don’t particularly like it but we know it’s coming to visit anyways and we just have to deal with it.  But how we deal with our stress, especially during exam week can mean the difference between getting sick and getting through.  Stress put on the body many ways can be harmful to our health and if we aren’t providing ourselves with enough food, sleep or breaks during finals, we can easily be subjected to shingles.

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A relatively new vaccine for shingles was released and according to a recent study of about 200,000 patients, the shingles vaccine is “generally safe and well tolerated,” published on WebMD Health News.

The vaccine reduced case of shingles by 50% and the painful condition by 90%. Production of this vaccination has increased this year and is recommended more by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Only 14.4% of US adults 60 and older were reported to have gotten the vaccine in 2010 but that has increased from 10% in 2009, according to the CDC.

Every year, 1 million Americans are diagnosed with shingles but only half of them are over 60. About 1 in 10 people, who had chicken pox as a kid will get shingles when they are adults, say doctors at Brown university health education.  Nearby grocery and drug stores offer daily or weekly shingles vaccinations for adults.

While shingles isn’t as contagious as chicken pox, it can be spread to someone through direct contact with the virus particles from the rash.  And though the rash will disappear eventually without a scar, it’s more serious if the rash spreads to your face, near eyes or ears.  This could become serious and cause a nerve condition much like paralysis that could last months to years.

Catching it as soon as you notice it is key.  The doctor prescribes antiviral medication and within a few days, it is healed. But past about 72 hours, and any medication becomes ineffective. So if you’re like me, thinking it was a common skin irritation brought on by extreme sun or a new detergent, try thinking again and save yourselves suffering for a few weeks.  It then becomes a waiting game much like chicken pox was as a kid; the same sense of helplessness lying in bed, covered in calamine lotion, full of painkillers, with family members keeping you from itching.

The weeks of itching, burning, tingling or numbness that came from the rash wasn’t the prominent affect that stifled my life’s routine and kept me stagnant from work or school.  It was shingle’s symptoms of incredible exhaustion, chills, fever and headache that kept me in bed and ironically caused all of the hard work I had stressed over the week prior, which had brought on the shingles, to become meaningless and put me behind.

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With tests, research papers, additional jobs and a dozen other extracurricular commitments and responsibilities, sometimes sleep doesn’t seem like an option for college students. You may be getting it all done and not suffering any mental or emotional stress, but your body is taking the toll.

Visit Campus Health to get checked out or for treatment

Short Term Ways to Manage Stress from Campus Health

  • Relax where you are – close your eyes, breathe deeply and slowly. Visualize yourself in a pleasant setting, perhaps watching a beautiful sunrise or sitting on a beach.
  • Take a break – get some exercise or fresh air, or go somewhere private to yell or cry.
  • Ask yourself whether it’s worth being upset over the situation. Often, you can choose to stay calm and ignore it.

Some healthy tips to get you through exam time:

  • Eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet – your body will need those extra vitamins and minerals. Eat at least three meals each day; and moderate your intake of fat, sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
  • Get plenty of sleep and try to make your sleeping patterns as regular as possible.
  • Exercise! After sitting in the library or at your desk for long periods of time, exercise will give you that extra boost of energy and liveliness.
  • Practice some relaxation techniques:
  • Do Diaphragmatic breathing – close your eyes; breathe in and out slowly and completely; placing your hands on your abdomen, concentrate on it expanding as you breathe in and contracting as you breathe out.
  • Laughter – proven to have a physiological calming effect; encourage laughter by reading a funny book, watching a comedy on TV or at the movies, joking with friends, etcetera.
  • Massage therapy – visit the Campus Health Service to make an appointment with the massage therapist.
  • Make time for personal time. Doing an activity that you enjoy will improve your mood and will help you return to your studies feeling refreshed and relaxed.

Written by: Melissa McGee, Ph.D., MPH

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