When Shingles Attacks!

02 Jan 2007

So, I am back after a longish hiatus. I have not even looked at my e-mail since 22 Dec 2006. I don’t think I’ve been away from the online world for such a long time in many years. It was not entirely voluntary, though! Just before Christmas I came down with a shingles infection, which started in my right eye.

Shingles is a reactivation of the herpes zoster or “varicella” virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. I did a near all-nighter the Monday a week before Christmas, which might not have been too bad, but then the following night we had a sick baby and I was also unable to sleep. That was apparently enough stress to cause the virus to reactivate.

By Wednesday my eye was stinging; I thought it must just be the aftermath of too much screen time, which occasionally happens, so I tried using lubricating drops. By Friday the lid was swollen and I was starting to feel prickling in my forehead. I was using compresses, and there was no sign of bacterial infection. I had no idea what was actually happening until Saturday morning, when the rest of the infection started to become visible. I had always thought that shingles generally broke out on the trunk, especially the back, but apparently it also affects the face (and eyes).

Saturday afternoon I managed to get a callback from the backup doctor on call at my doctor’s office, who suggested that since my eye was involved I should definitely see someone as soon as possible. After a lot of difficulty finding someone who was still in town and available to cover child care, Grace gave me a ride to an urgent care center. There they confirmed that it was shingles.

My eye was examined with dye and a slit lamp and the doctor on duty noticed that there were spots of viral infection on my right cornea. (Shingles almost aways occurs on one side of the body). She spoke with an ophthalmologist and they put me on a seven-day course of an anti-viral medication called Valtrex. They also prescribed an eyedrop with a steroid for the swelling and an antibiotic to prevent secondary infection from a scratchy, swollen eyelid, and advised me to contact the first available ophthalmologist the day after Christmas.

So, I spent the weekend unable to do much; I couldn’t read, or wear my glasses, or watch TV. I was considered contagious (I could spread chicken pox to anyone not already immune, such as our two-month-old baby Sam), so Sam was off-limits. Grace started sleeping in a chair with Sam. Veronica was not off-limits, though, so she kept me company, whether I wanted company or not!

Shingles is painful. I have become intimately familiar with two new types of pain, which I call the blowtorch and the nightstick. The blowtorch is a feeling like my skin is being burned by an open flame and is bubbling. That is the sensation of the blisters forming, although it comes at other random times too. The nightstick is deep pain along the nerves of my face, where they feel like I’ve been beaten. That produces a tremendous amount of muscle tension in my jaw, and around the base of my skull as well, where large areas are still very hyper-sensitive to touch.

Just to make things more enjoyable, the Valtrex has terrible side effects. I had waves of fever and chills, often back-to-back (asking Grace if it was suddenly incredibly hot, then a few moments later shivering violently). It also caused nausea, diziness, and strange, disturbing visions when i closed my eyes. I’m off the Valtrex now, so thankfully those side effects have gone away.

So for most of my ten days off work I was fairly incapacitated: unable to see, unable to read, lying in bed with fever or chills and wracked with strange pains, very bored and frustrated, covered with blisters and scabs. When I got out of bed, I was dizzy, stumbling around the house looking like a crazed sunburned pirate with an eye-patch on. I have not been able to hold my baby boy for almost two weeks. Grace has been sleeping in a chair.

It did not help that Veronica had a cold and sore throat and was throwing up about once a day (she finally seems to be over it), and that Sam also came down with an ear infection (he is taking amoxicillin). And now Grace seems to be getting sick. She never had chicken pox, although she had the vaccine, so all we can do is hope that she does not get chicken pox, and that she does not pass it to Sam.

After a few days, past the point where I was allegedly no longer infectious, I did manage to get out of the house with the family. That was a godsend for my mood. We had meals out, and on the Friday after Christmas Grace brought me to the office to pick up my paycheck. I said hello to a few co-workers and gave them an update. But aside from those brief errands out, I’ve been completely home-bound.

Anyway, I am back at work. The scabs are gone, although my face is still visibly splotchy and bruised-looking. I should no longer be contagious, although I will get my doctor’s opinion about that this afternoon. My right eye is still swollen and there is still some pain remaining. I had the followup with the ophthalmologist, who confirmed that my cornea was infected with the virus, and changed up my medication from drops to a thicker antibiotic gel. I am still using that, which means my right eye is still hazy, so I am not driving yet. I see my regular doctor today and the ophthalmologist again tomorrow.

I think the likely outcome is that my vision will be undamaged, or at least not damaged significantly. I’m assuming the visible blotches on my forehead will go away. At least, I hope they will. It seems like the pain will persist at reduced level for at least a while longer. Persistent neuropathy is a possibility, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Let’s also hope that this does not recur.

We were very fortunate to have assistance from various friends, particularly our friends Pete and Suzy. Pete drove me to the opthalmologist the day after Christmas and then out to the drugstore to get one of my prescriptions filled. And they brought us dinner one night and even cleaned up our kitchen!

Dear reader, I sincerely hope you had a better holiday than mine. And if not, God bless you!

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