A red welt appeared below my left eye three weeks ago. I thought I had suffered an insect bite.
At first I thought I had walked into a spider web in our back yard. Then I thought maybe I had been stung by a bee. It was hurting, stinging big time. I asked my wife if she might check to see if she could find and remove a bee stinger. There was none to be found.
Two days later and set to take a vacation trip to Michigan for a family reunion, my wife had the wisdom to suggest I see our family physician. She took us in that afternoon.
After examining my face carefully she sat back on a short medal stool and announced, “This might be shingles.”
“Shingles,” I responded, with dread and disbelief. I remembered in that flash I had never associated anything positive with the word “shingles.” I also remembered my uncle once had shingles as did my sister. Both said it was quite painful. (Tell people you have shingles and they almost immediately say: “Oh, I’ve heard it’s so painful.”)
Not yet certain of the diagnosis, my physician prescribed an anti-biotic, fearing the welt had become infected. She said I should call her if there was any change.
We took off the next day in our car. Within hours the original red welt was backed by invading comrades underneath my left eye and down the left side of my face. (Shingles spreads through nerves and appears on one side of the body or another.) My face was now burning and itching and a nerve biting pain was throbbing within my head.
I phoned my physician who called in a prescription for an anti-viral drug – one that didn’t exist a decade back – and stayed on it for two weeks. Getting on an anti-viral as soon as possible can apparently make a big difference in the severity and length of the shingles malady.
I should add I’ve seen two ophthalmologists to check to make certain the virus had not entered my left eye. It had not.
Of course, I had researched shingles in the internet the night before and had learned shingles is caused by the reactivation of the herpes-zoster virus, the virus that causes chickenpox. Those who have had chickenpox as children live their lives with the dormant virus. It can reactivate at any moment, but most frequently does when people are in their fifties or sixties, and is often triggered by stress.
Searching the Web for a quick self-diagnosis can be unnerving as well. The first site I came to mentioned almost haphazardly that shingles can lead to depression and even, yes, suicide. Whoa! Slow down here.
Other Web sites were less alarming, saying the red patches, most frequently on the back, abdomen or legs, while always painful, turn into blisters, and eventually disappear. The process usually lasts one to three weeks. It can be followed by lingering pain and fatigue.
At the moment much of the pain has receded. The burning sensations linger at times, seeming to get worse at night. The most debilitating part of the experience has been the fatigue. On some days I feel I have only a fraction of my usual energy.
A communicator by profession, I’ve mentioned my shingles to a number of people. Each time I do I find shingles is more common than I had thought. Virtually everyone has had it or knows a family member who has.
The good news is that in almost all cases, shingles goes away after a relatively short period, though some effects linger. If you ever think you might have its symptoms, unexpected patches of itchy red skin, see your doctor. It seems that starting an anti-viral treatment as soon as possible is important can reduce the severity and length of the malady.
Finally, there is an anti-shingles vaccination. Get the shot. I recently spoke with one current shingles patient who regrets not having followed through six months back when her physician first offered her a prescription.
So consider this a public service announcement. If you had chickenpox as a youngster. If you are in your fifties, sixties or seventiesm, be watchful. That unexpected “insect bite” might be the first sign of something more to come. But don’t wait for the onset of symptoms. Get vaccinated ASAP.
[Tom Fox is NCR editor.]