I Had No Idea Postpartum Shingles Were So Common — Until I Got Them Myself
By Joanna Schroeder | Originally Published Oct 5, 2018 on Babble | Featuring Dr. Sherry Ross
When you have a baby, it’s all too easy to forget to take care of yourself.
I don’t know about you, but during my first few months as a mom, I lived in ponytails, wore whatever was within arm’s reach (and preferably clean), and forgot to shower for days on end. Self-care can seem so unimportant when you’re just trying to get through the sleepless nights and round-the-clock diaper changes.
That’s probably why I thought the itchy, painful rash that showed up on my chest shortly after giving birth was poison ivy. By that point, my baby was two and a half months old, and I just didn’t think to question it. I pulled on my enormous nursing bra, grimaced as the thick fabric scraped across the bumps, and got on with my day.
In a few hours, I had another rash on the same side — a little spot across my shoulder and the back of my neck.
What the heck? I thought. How did I get more poison ivy, when the most nature I’ve seen in weeks is the parking lot outside the grocery store?
And so, I turned to Facebook, just like I do with all of my burning questions these days. I posted a photo of my rash and asked the good people of the Interwebs how on earth I could’ve gotten it. As friends started to weigh in, I knew this was more than just a bad case of poison ivy.
Again and again came the same answer, primarily from other moms of little ones: Shingles.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering how a young-ish, healthy mom of a newborn could get shingles of all things. After all, it’s an old person’s disease … right?
Apparently, that couldn’t be more wrong.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, half of shingles patients are people under 50, just like me; and anyone who has recovered from chicken pox in their lifetime is susceptible. Even little kids can get shingles, the CDC reports, though it is pretty rare.
The reason so many of my friends recognized my shingles rash was surprising to me, too. Turns out, a lot of them had also come down with it while their kids were newborns, and one friend even texted me with an urgent message to call the baby’s doctor.
That’s when I realized that my sweet little newborn was at risk, too.
Shingles, I’ve since learned, is a form of the Varicella virus, just like chicken pox; and my baby was still too young to have received her Varicella vaccination. Yikes.
Luckily, the pediatrician assured me that shingles can’t be transmitted via coughing or sneezing, like the flu or a cold can be. The baby would have to come into contact with the fluid in my blisters in order to be exposed. I covered my rashes with thick gauze and tape and saw my doctor, who prescribed me anti-virals to help lessen the impact of the virus.
While my postpartum shingles were relatively mild (thanks to my doctor and my friends who helped me catch it early), for others, it’s far from just a little rash. According to The Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of shingles include:
- Pain, burning, numbness or tingling.
- Sensitivity to touch.
- A red rash that begins a few days after the pain.
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over.
Some people may also experience a fever, headache, sensitivity to light, and/or fatigue.
My friend Danielle first got shingles when her baby, Vivian, was 5 months old. At that time, she had baby Vivian as well as a toddler, and she’d just found out her husband was having an affair. Life was stressful, to say the least, and stress can make you more susceptible to shingles.
Danielle’s shingles rash ran along the nerve near her breasts, which meant breastfeeding or pumping was excruciating. (“It felt like all my nerves were on fire,” she told me.) Danielle had to keep the rash covered whenever she held Vivian, and had to pump and then dispose of her breast milk because the only medications that even came close to managing her pain were not safe for her baby to ingest via her milk.
In short, it was a nightmare. The pain persisted for months, even after her course of antiviral medication had finished, and particularly extreme when she nursed the baby.
Dot, another mom I spoke to, was diagnosed with shingles when her daughter was only 4 weeks old. The pain started in her left ear and as a headache behind her left eye. At first, doctors at her local urgent care told her nothing was wrong and sent her home; but her symptoms persisted.
“The following day I had what looked like pimples along my hairline, temple, and eyelid,” she told me. “I chalked it up [to] hormones, but by the next morning I had horrible pain along the whole left side of my scalp, face, and eye.”
Fortunately, when Dot visited a different urgent care on the third day, she was diagnosed immediately and began treatment.
However, it wasn’t the pain that was the worst part for this new mom — it was the fact that the doctor told her to avoid contact with her newborn as much as possible. Dot’s mother was able to come help with the baby, but it was a heartbreaking period of time for the new mom.
“Not being able to hold Alice was miserable,” Dot shares. “You spend so much time bonding and cuddling during those first few weeks. And then to have it stop so abruptly was horrible. It hurt to see her need comforting and to not be the one to hold her.”
For many moms, myself included, there is no option but to be the one to hold, feed, change and comfort our babies. My husband works around 12 hours per day and my family all live out of state. Fortunately for me, as for Danielle and Dot, our babies did not contract Chicken Pox from our Shingles, but the stress of knowing it’s possible can be overwhelming.
o what is it about being a postpartum mom that makes us so vulnerable to shingles? I reached out to Dr. Sherry A. Ross, women’s health expert and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period, to get more clarity. She explained that the postpartum period “is a time when the body has a suppressed or low immune response to protect against certain medical conditions.”
I don’t know about you, but I had no idea that postpartum women have suppressed immune systems. With that in mind though, it makes perfect sense that so many moms who’ve just had babies get shingles.
“The hormonal changes associated with pregnancy lower the body’s immune response which carries overs into the postpartum period,” Dr. Ross explains. “It may take up to four months for the cells that protect our immune system to fully recover.”
“Shingles is one of those horrible viruses that love to take advantage of a compromised immune system that cannot stick up for itself,” she adds. There is a shingles vaccine available, but pregnant women (and women who plan on becoming pregnant soon) are advised not to get it. Generally, the shingles vaccine is only recommended for folks over 50, according to the CDC.
Other than taking good care of yourself by getting rest whenever you can and eating well, there’s not much you can do to help prevent shingles. You’re going to lose sleep with a newborn, and you’re going to go through the normal hormonal changes Dr. Ross talks about.
But if more new moms knew the symptoms, we could catch the signs of shingles earlier — and getting early treatment from your doctor, Dr. Ross explains, is the single most important factor in lessening its impact.