Shingles is Hell!

Steven R. Peskin, MD, MBA, FACP

Three days of a severe headache that would not respond to the ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen. "I never get headaches" is what I said multiple times to my wife and to colleagues. The morning of day three, a rash started to appear on my forehead, in the left eyebrow, in the scalp, with swelling around the left eye and swollen lymph nodes at the angle of the jaw on the left. My wife mentioned "shingles". Poor early diagnosis on my part, and, I said "Oh !*#%! that is what I have".  I was starting to feel as if I had been taken out by an NFL linebacker.

The next week was hell: profound fatigue, unremitting headache, left eye swollen shut, fear that I might have permanent vision loss in my left eye. Fortunately, with antiviral therapy, topical steroid plus antibiotic for the left eye, and several days of being down for the count, I began to return from purgatory. For the next three weeks, the frequent episodes of pruritis of my scalp on the left, forehead, and around the eye were both uncomfortable and embarrassing, as I would be rubbing and scratching to relieve a magnitude of itchiness that I had never before experienced.

Here is another person's experience that I found online:

I can’t even find the words to describe the pain in my ear and the side of my face. The pains of child birth don’t even accurately describe it as there was no bundle of joy to follow. The shock, stabbing, piercing, contracting pain was occurring regularly, had me in tears, and had at this point become the single most excruciating experience I have had. The English language or at least my knowledge of it lacks the words to describe the degree of discomfort, pain, unrelenting trauma that I felt in the side of my face and ear. I went back to the doctor. At this time she noted new blisters on the back of my ear and one on my ear drum. She acknowledged the degree of pain that I was experiencing. I don’t know why, but her compassion for the pain that I was suffering meant a lot to me and brought some measure of validation that it was as bad as it seemed and that I wasn’t just being a wimp. Every day I was surprised that instead of getting better, it seemed to get worse and I was developing new symptoms. It still seemed to be in the crescendo stage rather than the subsiding stage.

Two lessons: If you are 50 and have not received the zoster (shingles) vaccine, you have a 3 in 10 chance of going through something like my experience, or, the woman's description above. The vaccine will reduce your chances of having shingles by half to two-thirds. If you have a bout after having had the vaccine, it is likely to be less severe. The second lesson is for my clinician colleagues and any of you who are living with, working with, or otherwise associated with someone that is experiencing pain/disease. Pain changes us. Fear changes people—in my case possible loss of vision or fear of chronic neuropathic pain that is still a possibility.

I appreciated the empathy of family and friends and the rapid access to my internist, ophthalmologist, and an infectious diseases colleague on a weekend. Some of you have had similar experiences or may be living with chronic health problems. Others of you may feel invincible. Whatever your professional role in health care or in your personal life, when confronted with someone in pain who may also be fearful because of real or perceived complications, try putting yourself in his or her shoes.

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