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
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
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
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
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

    Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

    Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

    SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

    £1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

    Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

    £32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam