Shingles: Under my skin

Months of searing headaches, a violent, blistering rash – the peculiar agony of shingles took Robert Chesshyre by surprise

For four months last year I suffered from shingles. It would be an exaggeration (though 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 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 (it was, as it happens, Friday the 13th), 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 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 suffered as a teenager)? I had one blister-like spot, which I was pretty sure I had had for some time: the idea of shingles never occurred.

On 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 (by now five days after the headaches began), my wife (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 round 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 (therefore in most people) 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 (the most common symptom) 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 added that the effects of shingles become more severe with age. More unwelcome news.

"What now?" Like the mariner, all I could do was hope to ride it out. Christine 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 pain-killer. 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 I was through the worst. How stupid can you get? The headaches came roaring back. It proved a final twist, however, and two weeks later they again departed, and with joy (touching wood) I resumed a normal life.

I learned that there is now a vaccine, though 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 is very expensive, which is possibly why it is not made widely known by the NHS.

Now I advise anyone who shows symptoms (and it is surprising how many people do get shingles) 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 queuing for my dose whatever the cost.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballStriker in talks over £17m move from Manchester United
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
boksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

    SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

    Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

    £85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

    Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

    £55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor