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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.