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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
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

    Recruitment Genius: Case Handler - Probate

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

    Recruitment Genius: Web / Graphic Designer

    £10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to rapid customer growth, a...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree have recently been awa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

    £18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest private landlord ba...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn