An illness that gets under your skinComment on this story
For four months last year, I suffered from shingles. It would be an exaggeration (although only a slight one) to say that my life was on hold. It would not be an exaggeration to say I suffered great anxiety as to when (if ever) I would be rid of the searing headaches that dominated my days.
The illness started as a small cloud in a clear blue sky. I was on holiday in Guernsey, in the English Channel, and had been taken to dinner by friends. There was just time the next morning for a final burst of museum-visiting before flying home.
I had a headache (well in excess to anything I might have expected from the previous night), and found it hard to absorb the museum information. By the time I got home, I had stabbing pains across the right-hand top and side of my head and in my right ear. They were so sharp and severe that from time to time I cried out.
Next day was a Saturday, so there was a two-day wait to see a GP. We looked up the causes of “ice-pick” headaches. Could these be a migraine? I had one blister-like spot, which I was pretty sure I had had for some time. The idea of shingles didn’t occur to me.
On the Monday, I discovered that my doctor could not see me until Tuesday. Would I like to come in and see the duty doctor? I hesitated and (very foolishly) said no, preferring to wait.
Spots appeared overnight and by the time I finally went to the surgery, five days after the headaches began, my wife, Christine, (medical correspondent, Christine Doyle) and I had diagnosed shingles.
My knowledge of the disease was scant. An uncle had had a bad attack when I was a small boy and had suffered a painful rash around his middle. It was severe enough to be the talk of the family. I did know that shingles is caused by the herpes virus that lies dormant in everyone who has ever had chickenpox (in my case, half a century earlier).
But that the illness could cause grief – such as my enervating headaches – other than a rash was news to me. More damaging was my ignorance that the anti-viral treatment, Zovirax (acyclovir), the one proven weapon against shingles, should be started immediately. It was five days before I got my prescription. The GP said there was still a chance that the drug – five horse-sized pills daily for a week – would work, and I clung desperately to this hope.
The headaches, however, persisted. I monitored my condition as closely as a storm-tossed sailor scanning the heavens. If I detected any brightening of the sky, it was self-delusion. I returned to the GP to ask for more anti-virals. “No go,” he said, “if they don’t work first time, they don’t work.”
He said that the effects of shingles became more severe with age. More unwelcome news. Like the mariner, all I could do was hope to ride it out. My wife advised me to avoid the internet. I might read stories that would further alarm me. A friend rang and I told him about the shingles. “Oh my god,” he said – he had had a similar attack which had lasted three-and-a-half months.
That seemed like a heavy sentence with which to wake up each morning with a band of pain from my forehead across the top of my head via my ear to the nape of my neck. Later, I would have settled for that time-scale with alacrity. I realised that the more I did – and this included driving – the less I thought about the pain, and the better I felt.
So we went on holiday. By now I had developed my own self-medication – paracetamol and ibuprofen through the day, and a slug of whisky drunk slowly through the early stages of the evening. Back home, I returned to the GP and he prescribed amitriptyline, an anti-depressant, adding that, at the doses I would take, it was just a painkiller. It didn’t seem to make any difference, and as it was not supposed to be taken with alcohol I abandoned it and went back to my whisky. I ran into a friend on the street and told her of my woes. “Oh,” she said brightly, “my father suffered from shingles, they ruined the rest of his life.”
Summer slid into autumn, and winter beckoned. The headaches seemed to be lifting. I told everyone that I was through the worst. But the headaches came roaring back. It proved a final twist, however, and two weeks later they again departed, and with joy I resumed a normal life.
I learned that there is now a vaccine, although it cannot be taken until the sufferer has been clear of symptoms for 12 months. I asked a doctor about it, and she confirmed that it exists, adding that it was very expensive, which is possibly why it is not made widely known by Britain’s National Health Service.
Now I advise anyone who shows symptoms to get the anti-virals immediately, and everyone over 60 to have the jab and avoid the pain and the mental distress I endured. The day that my year without symptoms is up, I’ll be queueing for my dose, whatever the cost. – The Independent
An episode of shingles usually lasts two to four weeks. It starts as a tingling sensation in the affected area, followed by pain then a rash. Any part of your body can be affected, although shingles most commonly strikes the chest and abdomen. You may also:
* Experience pain in your arms and legs.
* Find that the nerves in the upper half of your face (including your eyes) are affected.
* Feel exhausted.
Some early symptoms can last for one to four days before the rash first appears:
* A high temperature (uncommon).
* Muscle pain.
* Burning, tingling, numbness or itchiness of the skin in the affected area.
* A feeling of being generally unwell.
A rash usually follows several days after the start of the pain. It appears on one side of your body and develops on the area of skin related to the affected nerve. Initially, the rash appears as red blotches on your skin, before developing into itchy blisters similar to chickenpox. About three days after appearing, they dry out.