It started with an itchy rash, just below my left breast, spreading to my armpit and centrally to my rib cage. Annoying at first then quite painful, moving upward to the lower part of my breast. What was this rash? I don’t have the best skin, always subject to irritating skin conditions, but this was different and painful. I worryingly made an appointment to see my GP.
On viewing the fast-spreading rash and checking other vital signs, my GP diagnosed the shingles virus. She advised the rash was not blistering yet, but I definitely had an outbreak of shingles.
Shingles is a virus caused by the same virus (varicella-zoster) that is responsible for chickenpox. After you have developed chickenpox, this virus lays inactive in your body but can ‘reawaken’ later in life causing a shingles outbreak.
People over the age of 50, those with compromised immune systems, and those who have had chickenpox as a baby are most likely to develop shingles. In fact, the shingle-causing virus is present in nearly all adults aged 50 years and older.
As a child born in the 1950’s, I was infected with chickenpox, in fact most of my family and friends were. It was rare to die from chickenpox, so we didn’t worry, but many of us wear to this day facial scars from the scabby sores inherent with the disease. It was never discussed or known to me that later in life chickenpox could come back to infect, in the form of a shingles outbreak.
My parents and husband had previously suffered from bouts of shingles. My husband fortunately had a mild bout, rash up the left side of his neck and face. My mother, not so fortunate, had a particularly bad bout, feverish and itchy, with a burning rash spreading across her middle back to the right side of her body. It nearly drove her mad, especially not being able to see or reach the rash given its location. It took several months for her symptoms to clear. I recall my reluctant father, dabbing soothing lotion on her inflamed back. Dad’s outbreak, like my husband’s was mild, he did however, suffer with the male version, bad temperament, sooky and needy for a couple of weeks!
My GP was hopeful my outbreak would be mild, but it wasn’t. As the shingles outbreak progressed, I had one particularly restless night, feverishly waking after a few hours screaming with pain.
I felt as if my chest was on fire – it was as if there were red flames shooting out of a big hole in my left side. I was frantic with fear, trying to explain to my sleepy husband that my body was on fire. He couldn’t see it and tried to calm me. That didn’t work, I screamed more. He didn’t get it! He couldn’t see the fire I was envisioning. It was leaping from my chest and I just wanted it to stop.*
Finally, he got it! He didn’t say I was insane, but quickly dressed and drove his manic wife to the local emergency centre.
I must admit, I was a hysterical mess! The doctors were unsure if my reaction was from pain, or the fever I had developed with the shingles virus. Once there, my pain and hysteria did settle, and I was later discharged.
I continued to suffer with pain and fever which forced me to retire to my bed. The rash had spread under and over my breast outwards and upwards towards my shoulder, red, itchy, ugly, and painful. It was difficult to find a comfortable way to rest. I was unwell for several weeks, no longer feverish, but very uncomfortable.
So much so, we had to cancel a planned holiday to one of our favourite destinations, Port Denison. It is a beautiful fishing port south of Geraldton, near the town of Dongara in WA. The cabin we usually rent is overlooking a beach with the most beautiful sunsets. I knew once we arrived, I could have rested in the cabin, but there was no way my body could endure a four-hour drive. The pain and fever had abated, but the rash had developed into weepy blisters, and I was not prepared to pull and strap a car seatbelt across my chest for anyone!
Still now, some years on, I have nerve pain in the same area. It isn’t there all the time, but it often flares up, no longer burning but given as little shocks that remind me of the rash and pain that once inflamed the area.
If you get shingles, you may not suffer as I have, but then again you may feel it worse. Many in our age group do suffer with this virus , it is inevitable given our exposure to chickenpox. Your GP is the best person to discuss the management of shingles.
*Symptoms may vary and not everyone will experience these symptoms.
GSK provided financial sponsorship for this article. This views and opinions expressed by Starts at 60 are their own and do not necessarily reflect and/ or represent the views and opinions on GSK.
Up to 99.5% of adults aged 50 and over already carry the inactive virus that causes shingles (1–3)
And about 1 in 3 people risk developing shingles in their lifetime, regardless of how healthy they may feel (1–3)
Talk to your doctor about shingles today.