She is used to reporting the news from across the country, but now Teresa Mannion is raising awareness of shingles, a virus which both she and her mother endured
She could be in Belmullet one day bringing us the news from rural Co Mayo or back in Galway City doing a live broadcast for RTÉ’s Six One News — but Teresa Mannion never takes her health for granted. .
As one of RTÉ’s most instantly recognisable faces, Teresa (59), is urging the over 50’s to understand shingles as something that can literally stop you in your tracks. She knows all too well the negative impact shingles can have and wants to speak out about her own experiences — new research shows a lack of awareness in the over-50 category about aspects of the condition that can be debilitating, and have a serious impact on quality of life.
When Teresa was in her Leaving Cert year and heading off to college in the autumn, she felt something wasn’t quite right. It started off as an itchy tingling sensation. She then developed an uncomfortable rash on the right side of her body. And while it was a long time ago, she remembers the burning sensation that accompanied it all too well.
“I was diagnosed when the blisters were so painful. That was the most painful part of shingles. It’s excruciating. I was out of action for nearly three weeks and a bit feverish at times. I got over it but it can take people a long time,” says Teresa, who moved to Galway to take up the regional reporter’s job in the west over a decade ago.
Not only was it her own experience of shingles that made her very aware of the severity of the condition but it was also her mother’s. Teresa recalls that her mother, Kathleen, was in her 50s when she took shingles.
“My mother was someone who was up at 6am and who cycled everywhere. She was such a high-energy person, always minding other people’s children — I’d never seen her like this. She was practically bed-bound and it took her a long time to get over it. It was at least six months.
“I think this is why it’s so important that people in this age cohort educate themselves about it,” says Teresa, a mum to two grown-up sons of 22 and 24.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles.
According to the HSE, you cannot spread shingles to others but people who have never had chickenpox could catch chickenpox from you. A shingles vaccine is available in Ireland but is not routinely given here.
The HSE advises that GPs can prescribe medicine to speed up a person’s recovery and avoid longer-lasting problems, and points out that these medicines work best if taken within three days of symptoms starting.
New research by global healthcare company GSK shows that one in three people who have had chickenpox are at risk of developing shingles in their lifetime.
While most people make a full recovery, shingles can potentially lead to serious and long-lasting complications. Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is the most common complication: prolonged nerve pain in the area affected by shingles that can last for months or even longer. PHN occurs in around 20 pc of all shingles cases, with the over-50s particularly at risk.
When she got shingles as a young woman, Teresa says she didn’t make the connection with chickenpox and believes that this is a risk factor that many people might not have any idea about.
“It’s not clear why some people, like me for example, get a reactivation of the virus. But there can be a number of factors like age and a weakened immune system, or it can be stress. I put it down to the stress between the Leaving Cert and college,” she says.
While the memory of Covid-19 is recent — she had it a few months back — her experience of shingles put the pandemic flu into the shade as memories of the pain it caused have not dimmed.
“My mother described it like having hot oil poured over her body. It seems to radiate through your body and affect the nerve endings,” says Teresa.
Those memories are why she wants to speak out and remind the over-50s of their own vulnerabilities to shingles, asking them to be aware of the risk factors and understand more about how it affects the body.
The GSK research found that a significant proportion of those over 50 had a good knowledge about many of the main symptoms — including a red rash, pain, burning and numbness or tingling in one part of the body as well as itching.
However, despite the fact that 56 pc of respondents to the research survey perceived shingles to be a serious disease, a considerable number — 43 pc — said they felt it was unlikely they would develop it in the next year.
“I’m concerned that many of the over-50s don’t feel that they are at risk of infection. As shingles has a broad range of risk factors, I’d advise anyone in that age group to contact their doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist to discuss shingles,” says Teresa. “Check it out with your GP if you have any symptoms. The earlier you go to your GP the better,” she adds.
Shingles is more common in older people, and age is one of the risk factors associated with shingles, as is lowered immunity. While Teresa Mannion knows that it’s very rare to get shingles a second time, she is very conscious about doing everything she can as a woman in her 50s to maintain her optimum health and boost her immune system through activity and exercise.
While her job brings her to some of the most glorious off-the-beaten-track locations in the country for work, it also sees her sitting at her desk for long periods, filing stories and updating items for broadcast.
“If I’m sitting for 40 minutes, I have to walk it out. I might go for a dip to Blackrock or Salthill. There’s a beach halfway along called Lady’s Beach, which feels really safe to swim. When people come to visit, I bring them there,” says Teresa, who also danced her way to a whole new level of health and fitness on RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars a few years ago.
While she says that sea swimming and immersing in the frigid waters off the Irish coast was something she never thought she’d adjust to, she’s become more used to the cold and has her own routine — including wearing foot slippers — to help with the cold.
“A lot of the job involves long treks in the car, so I make a point of factoring in a walk even if it’s only 20 minutes over the prom or I go down by the river at the back of NUI Galway. I cycle as well and I have a subscription to the bike scheme in Galway City,” says Teresa.
To learn more about shingles, visit understandingshingles.ie and
hse.ie/conditions/shingles for information