How shingles start out in the body: an insiders perspective from the Varicella Zoster Virus

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A creative illustration of an old virus depicted as a person with one eye. They are saying

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My name is Varicella Zoster Virus, but you can call me VZV and I am here to tell you how shingles start out in the body. I originally met Anna through her cousin. Back in the early 90s, they had this simply delicious way of introducing us to new hosts, by simply… introducing us to new hosts! Ha! How positively archaic, right?

Anna was trapped in a room to play with her cousin, who had chickenpox, for the very purpose of me hopping onto her skin and traveling to the base of her spine, where I could live happily ever after for the rest of her life. They call us the bad guys when they’ve literally been INVITING us in for years. But it all changed in ’95 when Varicella Vaccine rode up in his fancy little needle, and everyone lined up to greet him.

And just like that, the welcome mats were rolled up, and I was forced to cling to the spine I had. And not to bite the hand that scratches me, but it’s been dreadfully boring for me for the past 30 years. I’ve just been twiddling my glycoprotein spikes, playing hopscotch on Anna’s spinal cord, building play forts out of cells and tissue, and taking lots of long, languid naps.

That is, until this summer, when I had a wake-up call. I’d grown lazy and let Anna’s Immune System – the more industrious, responsible one – take control for the past three decades. But one fateful night as stressors hailed down on our human from every direction, Immy fell asleep at the wheel. Or Anna yanked it out of her grasp. It’s still up in the air who’s responsible, but either way, Anna’s Immune System crashed.

I found Immy sprawled out with no pulse. I gently removed her boxing gloves she uses anytime I get out of line, prayed over her corpse, and put them on. They fit like… well, a glove. It was my fight now.

I marched to my apartment, picked up my toolkit, and hitched a ride from Anna’s T cells to the base of her skin. I used my blow torch to redecorate a bit, and then I puffed out my chest and tried to break the surface. Anna distractedly started scratching her rash. I got brave and decided to conquer more territory. I traveled up her nerve endings to her neck and was drilling into the base of her skull with my jackhammer when I heard her crying to her husband, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My head is splitting, my back’s on fire, and I don’t feel like myself!”

The bastard told her to go to the doctor.

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Anna made an appointment for the next day, so I took a break from my rampage to make myself a Bloody Mary (ours are a bit different down here) and sit back and listen. I knew what I was capable of, but I wanted to hear it from the source.

Dr. Smart (what a name) asked her what her symptoms were.

“I have this heat rash that feels like electric zaps and a splitting headache as if someone’s stabbing my skull. And I know this sounds crazy, but I think it’s related.”

“Well, let’s take a look.” He unzipped her dress, and I felt a suffocating breeze.

“Oh no,” he said, “It’s no heat rash…you’ve got shingles.”

“Shingles?” Anna squawked. “But, I’m 33.”

I rolled my eyes at her ignorance. We’re inside anyone who’s ever had chickenpox! Foolish girl.

“Are you stressed?” The doctor asked Anna.

“Stress is my baseline emotion,” she replied.

“Well, I want you to rest for a while – take a few days off, take a break from exercising. Get plenty of sleep.”

Ugh. We had just had a glorious week together of insomnia, early workout classes, out of town visitors and so, so much work. It was a banquet of weakness, and I fed hungrily like the disease I am.

But Anna took the doctor’s advice, and Immune System miraculously recovered and demanded I give her back her boxing gloves. So I did. She’s pretty convincing. But she’s also still weak and needs rest, so sometimes when she’s catching a snooze, I grab my sharpest scalpel and pay a visit to Anna’s back.

And each whimper is music to my ears. She wonders why I’m still here, but she can’t ever rid of me completely. Not really. And with the holidays around the corner full of family drama, money spending, and travel strife? I’ve already started practicing my rendition of my favorite Christmas jingle, with a bit of a shingles twist.

Article by
Anna Svoboda

Anna Svoboda moved to London from NYC with her husband in 2018 and is pursuing a Masters of Arts in writing from London Metropolitan University.


My name is Varicella Zoster Virus, but you can call me VZV, and I am here to tell you how shingles start out in the body.