BUFFALO, N.Y. – Terry D. Connell, PhD, knows a lot about
the immune system: he’s a University at Buffalo professor in
the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the School of
Medicine and Biomedical Sciences who conducts research on new
vaccines for diseases, such as tuberculosis.
But his academic credentials are only part of the reason that he
strongly believes that everyone over the age of 60 should get a
shingles vaccination. The other is his personal
experience with shingles.
“It was the most debilitating and painful thing I’d
ever experienced,” says Connell, who had shingles about a
decade ago. “At times, it was so painful, I couldn’t
have a bedsheet touch my body.”
Connell had symptoms for two months. He developed a rash
on the small of his back and blisters on the bottom and top of one
of his feet. “For a few days, it was too painful to
walk,” he recalls, noting that once he could walk, he had to
use a cane for about two weeks.
“I was lucky,” says Connell. “The pain in some
individuals can be so severe that physicians have to prescribe
And in some cases, shingles can leave the individual with
lifelong pain, caused by a post-shingles syndrome termed
“post-herpetic neuralgia.” According to the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 13 percent of
people over 60 will develop post-herpetic neuralgia after having
“Shingles are caused by varicella zoster, the same virus
that causes chicken pox,” Connell explains. “Once the
virus infects an individual, often as a child, and the primary
symptoms of chickenpox subside, the virus ‘hides out’
in the nerve cells of the body. Those hidden viruses can
reactivate at any point in life to produce shingles.”
Nearly one in three Americans will develop shingles, according
to the CDC. The chance of developing shingles becomes more
likely as people age.
“That’s because our immune systems weaken as we
age,” says Connell. “With the weakened immune
system, we cannot keep the ‘hidden’ virus under
Vaccination is recommended for everyone over the age of 60.
According to the CDC, vaccinated individuals can still
develop shingles, but the vaccine will likely make the pain less
severe and should shorten the length of the outbreak.
Shingles starts as a rash usually on only one side of the body,
commonly appearing in the shape of a stripe, often around the
abdomen, but it can occur on any part of the body, including on the
face, eyes, or mouth. Before the rash forms, there is often
pain and itching or tingling. The disease is often accompanied by
fever, headache, chills and upset stomach.
Shingles can strike out of the blue, Connell says, even if you
are perfectly healthy, as he was.
“I had just added weight lifting to my fitness routine and
one day after I worked out, my back started hurting,” Connell
recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s from the
A few days later, however, the pain became much worse. Connell
worried that it might be a herniated disk.
“I could barely get out of bed,” he recalls.
“I was sure it was my back. I managed to get an
appointment with UB Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. As I was
getting out of the car and placed my foot on the pavement, a sharp
pain zipped from my foot all the way up my leg. I stepped out
of my shoe and saw the blisters. Right away, with what I know
about infectious disease, I suspected it was shingles.”
He realized that he probably needed to see his primary care
physician. But, as he was already at UB, he went to the
appointment. When the sports medicine physician
couldn’t find anything wrong with his back or muscles,
Connell deliberately revealed the blisters on his foot.
“I remember a big smile breaking out on his face as he
realized what I had already surmised: Shingles!!”
With Connell’s permission, the doctor immediately summoned
all the UB medical residents in the clinic so that they could see
for themselves how symptoms presenting as one medical issue may
turn out to be something entirely different.
“The sports medicine doctor said shingles is very
common,” says Connell. “If the residents hadn’t
known about the blisters, they would still be assuming it was a
backache. It turned out to be a great learning opportunity for our
Shingles can be transmitted through contact with the lesions
that develop. Most people only have one episode of shingles,
Connell says. A very small percentage of people, however, will
develop shingles one or more times.
Connell says, “If you’ve ever had chickenpox, I
highly recommend that you get the shingles vaccine. I
don’t want anyone to experience what I