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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

The word "shingles" may make you picture a roof, and so the disease called shingles may conjure up in your head the strange and somewhat comical image of hunks of human skin overlapped on a body like a shake roof. If you ever get shingles, however, it will probably not be a rooftop experience.

If you're like me, it may take you a while to figure out what is wrong with you. Taken separately, your symptoms are almost possible to ignore. You may wake up several days in a row feeling the exact opposite of refreshed after your night's sleep, because your entire body aches. This you attribute to the inevitable process of getting older and creakier. You feel worn out by the end of the day, but no one ever said aging was easy.

Then you notice that your skin hurts. You will have no other way to explain it. There is no rash or bruise, but it is so very sensitive to everything that grazes it, even the lightest clothing or the gentlest touch from your spouse. You will also notice that, oddly, only half of your skin seems to be affected, almost as though you are wearing half of a thick belt of sensitivity around your torso.

But you continue to go about the business of living your life, albeit in a growing discomfort. A day or so later, you discover some itchy bumps on your back and stomach that you at first think are bug bites. You think: What the heck? What kind of bug is in your house or in your sheets, biting you in this clustered fashion? You wash the sheets. You vacuum under the bed. Your face blooms with a blemish, and you reflect on the indignity of getting a zit at your age. Your morning prayer may sound something like: Really, God? Pimples and bug bites? You apply aloe vera gel, and then tea tree oil, but you notice that these annoyances are just not going away, not as quickly as they used to, anyway.

You have a really bad day, then, when you feel feverish and lousy and listless, and all of these little issues are really irritating you enough, you go online. You click on your reliable medical website from the Mayo Clinic, and you search for your symptoms. You find a list that seems to apply to you quite specifically. And then you realize:

Crap. You have shingles.

There are horrifying photos on the website, of skin cruelly disfigured by the crusty, blistery pox unleashed in the bodies of others. You check your eruptions again. They are still there and looking angrier. You feel like weeping with gratitude when you read that some cases of shingles, like yours, are comparatively mild. You are actually happier about this than if you just won the lottery. You read that shingles are directly related to the chicken pox you had when you were a kid, and that the virus can lie dormant for decades. It can then leap into action at some trigger: stress or too much sun or some compromise to your immune system, or actually, for no apparent reason.

You make an appointment with the doctor, because you need a prescription for the antiviral medication that will tame and control your shingles.

At your appointment, you try not to sound like those annoying people who use the Internet to diagnose themselves, even though this is what you have successfully done. You don't want the doctor to suspect you are a hypochondriac, or a creepy candidate for the Munchausen syndrome that you saw on an episode of "House." Your doctor, with a skeptical smile, hears you out, asks you some questions, looks you over, and then gives you a prescription for enormous white pills that you will take five times a day for seven days.

The pills will bother your stomach and throw your digestive system out of whack, but you will persevere, because your doctor told you to finish them, and you don't want your mild case to go atomic.

Since the doctor has said that you can actually get shingles again, you make a note of the vaccine that you will be eligible for when you turn 60.

You admit to feeling better knowing that you actually have something, that your symptoms are not just the ravages of age. You give yourself permission to lie around for a few days. You thank your lucky stars that your illness is nothing like your friend who'd been hospitalized for shingles a few years ago, whose doctor called him the worse case he'd ever seen.

You pray that you have not given anyone the chicken pox, especially your infant nephew who slept in your arms before you knew that you constituted a nasty risk of contagion. You keep praying, even when you finish the pills and the incubation period ends and you finally feel more like yourself.

At least, that's what you do if you're like me.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her