December 22, 2015 is a day that will remain with me forever, literally, on my face, in my ear and along my jaw. After days of self-diagnosis via Google and the internet, my dermatologist told me Santa arrived early and gifted me with Shingles!
Shingles is one of those horrible things of which TV dramas and medication advertisements are made of — here’s the official description from the National Institutes of Health:
Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). VZV is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in the body. Usually the virus does not cause any problems; however, the virus can reappear decades later, causing shingles.
I’ve always prided myself of being free of Herpes Simplex 1 and 2 — and I still am — but that was of little comfort as my open Shingles lesions wept and crusted over and started the scarring process.
A week before I was officially diagnosed, a series of painful things started to happen and that’s where hubris and Google converge to become your mortal enemies and not your self-diagnosing friends.
The pain started in my lower right jaw as all of my bottom teeth took turns “pinging” me with pain on that side that would jump from tooth to tooth. I rationalized that I must’ve bitten down too hard on a candy cane and I had injured my teeth. I decided to give it a day or two to see if the pain dissipated before going to the dentist.
A day or two later, my right jaw began throb with pain. I’d had TMJ trouble in the distant past, and I thought this new flare up was due to stress — I tend to hold my breath and clench my teeth on deadline — and the end of the year was nigh, and I had a lot to do in order to finish the year right.
I decided I would have the dentist check my jaw as well as my teeth if the pain continued for another day or two — all decided as the right side of my face was swelling along the vertical length of my mandibular condyle to the size of a baseball.
The jaw pain was making it hard to talk, and chew, and open my mouth. Sleeping on the right side of my face was impossible. When I awoke the next day with a tremendous earache — as if I were being stabbed in the ear canal with an icepick while the inside of my ear was simultaneously, and repeatedly, being crushed like an empty beer can — I reasoned the trouble was the jaw pain had moved into my ear causing a eustachian tube clogging that needed decongesting with a more powerful version of Sudafed than what I had on hand.
As time progressed, my teeth stopped hurting, but my ear and jaw felt as if they were exploding, and a couple of bloody lesions appeared around my right ear and in spots on the right side of my scalp. Hmm. I did my due diligence Google search and decided I had some form of eczema or psoriasis and went out and brought a more appropriate medicated shampoo.
When the right side of my face blistered, Google and I decided it was because I’d taken too many Aleve for the pain in my jaw — four pills in 24 hours instead of three — and I needed to back off the dosage. If you read the labels of any over the counter pain reliever, blistering is one of the possible side effects for Tylenol, Advil and Aleve!
Unable to sleep for a week or so due to all the pains, the next morning I finally decided to heed my wife’s ongoing prodding to seek the advice of a doctor as the blistering on my face had begun to grow and gain formation and pillar-like depth of pain into my face; but which doctor? A dentist for the tooth and jaw pain? I reasoned my heart doctor likely wouldn’t be able to help me unless this was blood-pressure related.
Our insurance is PPO and not HMO, so we’re not required to have a primary physician or to get referrals — if a doctor is in network, we can just bundle up and make an appointment to be seen.
I finally rationalized my dermatologist would be the best choice since the lesions on my face were getting worse. I was able to see him later that day, the 22nd of December, and my fate was soon sealed in a three-second diagnosis that Google and I had failed to render together over the past week.
Here’s some advice to non-certified Google home doctors like me — there’s no such thing as a coincidence — instead of separately excusing every single ailment that pops up consecutively in a short time period… tooth pain = biting on candy canes, jaw pain = former TMJ trauma, scalp lesions = eczema, facial blisters = too much Aleve… look for a single, unifying, diagnosis instead of multiple separate causes.
I think the reason I was so loathe to seek medical attention was because I’m never sick. I can’t recall the last time I had a cold. I eat right. I exercise. Yet, I was stricken anyway.
Oh, and also — follow your wife’s command. I would have been at the doctor’s office three days earlier if I’d been less manly and more human. If our roles were reversed, we would’ve been in a doctor’s office in a flash, but when it comes to men and pride, too many of us prefer to suffer and die young than be proactively preventative and live happily and healthier for a longer time.
After glancing at my face, my dermatologist said, “You have Shingles. I’ll do a scrape test for the lab to verify, but I don’t want to wait any longer to get you on medication because, after 40 years of practice, I know exactly what you have.”
“Is it only Shingles? What about this lump on my jaw and my weeping inner ear? They’re so painful!” I said.
“It’s all the same thing. The blistering is the big sign,” he said, “and everything happening on one side of your face is confirmation. Classic. You’re going to blister even more and then scab and then we’ll have to deal with the scars. You have Shingles in the worst possible place: your face.”
I didn’t tell the doctor I don’t really scar — and scarring is a big thing with Shingles, so that’s a good thing.
When I told him it was okay Shingles attacked my face — he seemed upset by that — I should’ve explained I can deal with the lesions and the scars, but the pain in my ear and jaw were unbearable, and I was unable to sleep, and I was so happy to finally know that everything that was wrong with me had a single, sensible, cause.
He told me there’s a medication regimen for Shingles now — in the not so distant past you’d just have to suffer through it — but now there’s a miracle medication that compresses everything into only 2-3 days of major discomfort getting to the scarring stage instead of 3-4 months of crusting and bleeding.
I asked my doctor how this happened because I live a determined, healthy, lifestyle, and he told me my immune system was weak, and the Shingles virus attacked my nerve ends and lymph nodes.
In reflection, I had been tired lately, and perhaps I had helped the situation by self-poisoning myself with a moldy set of humidifier filters that I had failed to properly clean and exchange.
I asked him if I’d ever get Shingles again, and he asked me if I had AIDS. AIDS and Shingles are two twins of destruction caught in a circular dance of death with each other and if you have AIDS, you will likely get recurrences of Shingles, too.
When I told him I did not have AIDS, he said I would not get a second round of Shingles. He warned me I had to be careful with others in the weeping blisters stage because I was infectious. I could give Shingles to someone who already had Chickenpox or I could give a person who never had Chickenpox, Chickenpox.
My doctor asked me if I had the internet. I confirmed I did. He told me to “look up Shingles” on the internet for more information! I laughed inside my aching mind as I realized my Golden Age dermatologist just told me to go do precisely what I had been doing — and should not have been doing!
In my Google internet medical research after my meeting with the doctor, I learned the chances of getting Shingles a second time within the first three years of acquisition are 1% and after seven years, that rises to 7% — so the CDC recommends that people who had Shingles once, should also get the Shingles vaccine later, just to cover all the infectious health angles.
The trick, according to the CDC, is when to vaccinate, since the vaccine only lasts five years. Do you get it early at 55? Or do you risk a little bit and wait until you’re 65? Once you’re in an active Shingles cycle, the vaccine does no good.
My doctor gave me a prescription for Valacyclovir pills and Acyclovir ointment. He ordered me to the pharmacy immediately because we had to “stop this before it gets any worse” and he told me even if the medication is $100 a pill, to get pills because, he adamantly repeated, “the virus must be stopped now, or it will be too late to stop it and then we have to use painful steroids to try to deal with the pain.”
I ran to the pharmacy and was relieved to learn the entire co-pay for both pills and ointment was only $10.
One hour after taking my first pill, my right ear went crazy! It was as if every bone in my ear were being attacked and crushed and twisted. Then my face began to tingle at the lesion sites. Since Shingles affects the nerves, I have a perfect map of all the nerves on the right side of my face — each endpoint pocked with a blistering lesion.
A week later, I visited my doctor, and he said, “You’re done.” The lesions were crusting, falling off, and crusting again and again and now all that was left to do was to wait out the residual pain for the next four months and then deal with the scarring. He told me to take Extra-Strength Tylenol for pain.
Today, so far, so good — but the nerve pain in unnerving! The raw spots on my face are aching and swirling — the same awful sensation men get in their groin when they swing too high and too far in the air. I don’t know how the female equivalent of that sensation is described, and if you know, find me and let me know — because somebody understands this sensation and knows how to get rid of the arcing ache in my face!