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The Postpartum Symptom No One Warned Me About

Photograph by Twenty20

Dressing for the gym one afternoon, when I was four months postpartum with my son, I flinched as the right strap of my sports bra slid over my shoulder. The strap felt like it was irritating a painful bruise on my back, yet there was no mark. But by the next day, a red, blistering rash had begun to form just behind my right shoulder.

As a new mom struggling to breastfeed eight times a day and convince an active infant to sleep longer than 30-minute stretches, I ignored the rash for a few days. Then, at a routine dermatologist appointment, I realized I probably should have checked my mommy martyrdom and put my needs first this time: I had shingles.

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At 29, I was three decades too young to be considered a candidate for the shingles vaccine. While anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for shingles (in which the virus that causes chickenpox reactivates in the body after lying dormant), people over 60 are most susceptible.

Yet, as I learned from peppering my doctors with questions and scouring the internet after my diagnosis, anyone with a weakened immune system is at increased risk for shingles. That includes pregnant women and new mothers. As it turns out, combining this suppressed immunity with the stress of new motherhood creates the perfect breeding ground for shingles.

It’s tough to say how many women develop postpartum shingles because there isn’t data on the number of cases. But, anecdotally, the numbers add up fast. Google “postpartum shingles” and you’ll find message boards filled with women swapping shingles stories and seeking advice. In a blog post, one new mother described casually pointing out a poison ivy rash to her doctor before learning she actually had postpartum shingles.

Looking back, it’s clear that my stress had hit its peak when I discovered the shingles rash on my back that winter.

And when I visited my own primary care physician a few weeks after my shingles diagnosis, she told me postpartum shingles is so common that not only did she herself have it after giving birth, she also expected the recommended age for the shingles vaccine to eventually be lowered.

Looking back, it’s clear that my stress had hit its peak when I discovered the shingles rash on my back that winter. I was fighting my way out of the postpartum depression that arrived as soon as we brought my son home from the hospital.

I was exclusively breastfeeding almost around the clock. I hadn’t found a community of mom friends, and remained largely isolated at home with my infant even when I went “back” to work as a freelance writer. And my husband and I were discussing the possibility of an out-of-state move that would take us far from loved ones.

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Luckily, my case of shingles wasn’t a particularly bad one. It never spread from the isolated area on my upper back. While I was certainly uncomfortable, I felt none of the debilitating pain some experience with shingles. And, best of all, my son, who was too young for the chicken pox vaccine, didn’t catch chicken pox from coming in contact with my shingles rash.

While there’s no foolproof way to prevent shingles, I’m thinking hard about how to reduce my chances now that we’re considering a second child. I’ll take preventive steps against postpartum depression as soon as I deliver. I’ll lean on my network of mom friends and the wonderful breastfeeding resources in my area. I’ll save any big decisions—major home renovations, moving to a new town, changing careers—until at least a year after giving birth.

And if I get another unusual rash, I’ll hightail it to the doctor. Because taking care of myself will be one of the best ways I can take care of my children.

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