'Like My Skin Is Being Melted Off:' Thesis Stress Gives Student Shingles

A Reddit user has reported developing shingles after the stress of handing in their university thesis. They shared an image of their leg in the subreddit Wellthatsucks and wrote: "It feels like my skin is being melted off."

The post has been upvoted over 33,000 times and received over 1,700 comments.

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, occurs when a dormant chickenpox virus in the body is reactivated. While it is more common in older adults and people with weakened immune systems, anyone can get shingles.

According to the CDC, one in three people in the U.S. will develop shingles in their lifetime.

Chickenpox virus
Stock image of a chickenpox virus. The virus remains dormant in the nervous system after infection has cleared. Dr_Microbe/Getty

"The most common thing that brings on shingles is ill health," the director of the Shingles Support Society, Marian Nicholson, told Newsweek. "That can be something like COVID, or just something everyday like stress."

After recovering from chickenpox, the virus that causes it, called varicella-zoster, remains in the body, lying dormant in our nervous systems until our immune defenses are down. "More than 95 percent of people have had chickenpox, which means that more than 95 percent of people could develop shingles," Nicholson said.

When we are stressed, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol which is known to suppress our immune systems. As a result, long periods of stress can severely reduce our bodies' ability to fight off infections, including dormant viruses.

In response to the Reddit post, Nicholson said: "Our bodies keep us going as long as they possibly can. The moment they relax, the thing that has been held at bay can then come out and annoy us."

The main symptom of shingles is a painful, blistery rash that can last for weeks.

Shingles is not something you can catch, although if you have never had chickenpox before you may be at risk of catching it from close contact with shingles blisters.

shingles itchy rash
Stock image of an itchy rash. Shingles produces a red, painful rash that can lasts for weeks. ipopba/Getty

It might seem counter-intuitive, but, according to Nicholson, for people who have already contracted the virus, one of the best ways to protect yourself from shingles is to expose yourself to someone with chickenpox.

"Meeting chickenpox again during the course of your life lessens your chances of having shingles," Nicholson said. This is because chickenpox exposure primes your body to recognize the varicella-zoster virus. "So a mum who has nursed children through chickenpox is less likely to contract shingles than someone who has had no exposure."

There is also a vaccine available for older adults which acts in the same way to boost your body's immune defenses against the virus.

shingles vaccine
Stock image of vaccination administration. There is a shingles vaccine available for older adults and those with weakened immune systems. Prostock-Studio/Getty

In most cases, shingles will go away on its own, although it can lead to more serious complications. One Reddit user responded to the post saying they had suffered nerve damage, something called postherpetic neuralgia, which can cause long-term nerve pain for years after the initial rash has disappeared.

The original poster has said they have started taking antivirals for the condition. "It's definitely shingles!" they wrote in an update. "I think the term is disseminated shingles when there's quite a bit of inflammatory spillover but in person you can tell that it follows the nerve down and doesn't cross the midline. Definitely a severe case but antivirals are kicking in and the inflammation is going down."

The best way to protect yourself from these complications is to take antivirals early. According to Nicholson, the sooner you get treatment, the better. "If you have a mysterious pain or intolerable itch, think about shingles and go along to the doctor," she said.

Newsweek contacted the poster for comment.