Thursday 23 November 2017

The horror of Shingles: 'It was so bad I wore gloves so I wouldn't draw blood'

A whopping 95pc of us are at risk, yet many still don't know what shingles is and how to treat it. Ailin Quinlan talks to one sufferer whose pain was so severe she likens it to a breakdown, and gets advice from experts

Carol Reddy Locke suffered from shingles after her immune system took a 'battering'. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.
Carol Reddy Locke suffered from shingles after her immune system took a 'battering'. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.

Blisters, itching, pain, fatigue, headaches - plus an overwhelming fear that she could lose her sight - tormented Carol Reddy Locke for weeks and forced her to wear gloves to stop her tearing her skin.

The mother-of-two had a condition that most of us recognise, but, according to the latest research, few understand - shingles, a viral disease affecting the nerves and surrounding skin.

According to research published today, most Irish adults aged over 50 are aware of the condition but know little about it - yet two out of three cases occur in people over 50, and cases tend to be more severe in older adults.

Like many others, Carol had heard about shingles but knew nothing about the condition until she started to experience symptoms which, the 46-year-old Co Carlow woman recalls, were a nightmare:

"My body almost broke down. The pain, fatigue, blisters, itching, headaches and fear that the rash would travel to my eyes just simply overwhelmed me. It must have lasted a month," says Carol, who, like 95pc of adults, had chickenpox as a child.

If you've ever had chickenpox, you face a one-in-four chance of developing shingles, because the condition is caused by the reactivation of the same virus that causes chickenpox.

"The most common cause of that reactivation is an age-related drop in the strength of the immune system, which is why it tends to be more common in the over 50s," explains Limerick GP Dr John Loughnane.

Carol battled the condition, which doctors believed, resulted from her "shattered" immune system, which had received a heavy battering from a hectic few months at work, major surgery and an already difficult medical history.

"I kept my eating and cleaning utensils separate and washed everything with boiling water.

"My husband, God love him, was sent to the spare room.

"Around the end of July I was itching all over. It was so bad I wore gloves so I wouldn't draw blood."

Desperate for relief, she made a paste of baking soda and water which she rubbed over her body.

The trouble started in July 2014, about four months after she underwent weight-loss surgery.

However Carol, the manager of Bagenalstown Credit Union in Carlow, suffers from a variety of ailments including fibromyalgia, a disorder which is believed to cause the brain to perceive pain at an amplified rate, resulting in widespread pain and fatigue.

She also suffers from severe back pain and trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic condition which causes severe facial pain.

Over the years, as she battled these health problems, she put on weight, eventually reaching 25 stone, which is why she opted for the gastric band surgery.

When she contracted shingles following the operation, Carol presumed the pain was both a response to the weight-loss surgery, and linked to her existing health problems.

"I knew my medical conditions would affect my recovery and my immune system would be compromised, but I never expected shingles," she says.

She consulted her GP and was prescribed a morphine patch for the pain which she had used in the past.

However this time the patch didn't work - she was back to the doctor within 48 hours.

"A very small blister on my ear had spread to the side of my face and my body was itching and the pain was very different."

Carol felt deeply unwell, and was experiencing an overwhelming sense of fatigue.

Suspecting shingles, her doctor sent her to hospital where medical staff confirmed the diagnosis.

Carol was put on antibiotics and prescribed a viral cream and pain relief, and improved quickly within a few days.

Afterwards, medical staff explained that the shingles was more than likely caused by her severely compromised immune system.

Carol had, she admits, a hectic time at work in the run up to Christmas 2013. Then in January 2014 she had flown to Arizona to attend her son's wedding.

During the return journey to Ireland, she contracted a very serious bout of food poisoning and became extremely ill.

In February she had a flare up of her fibromyalgia, and, following gastric band surgery in March, it was, she recalls, a case of "Bang; I hit a brick wall."

Even now, says Carol, who has lost nearly 11 stone since the weight-loss surgery, her earlobe still goes bright red and itches when she gets over-tired.

According to a study carried out on more than 500 people around Ireland and which is published today, the majority of people aged 50 and over in this country know little about the condition.

The survey results, which are published as part of the 'Have You Heard About Shingles?' campaign, show that women are more than twice as likely to know a lot more about shingles than males, at 25pc compared to just 12pc.

Two-out-of-three cases of shingles occur in people over 50 years of age, and the disease also tends to be more severe in older adults.

"The big message is that as we get older, the immune system does not hold the virus down as much as it should, and it reactivates - the consequences are more severe for elderly people because the rash is more severe, as is the pain, which is caused by nerve damage inflicted by the virus as it travels down the nerve," explains Dr Loughnane, who added that a vaccine is now available to protect against the condition, although costs are not covered by the HSE.

The research shows "a worryingly low level of awareness among those who are at risk," added Dr Loughnane.

Shingles can cause extreme pain, warned John Lindsay, chairman of Chronic Pain Ireland.

"Shingles can lead to a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) which is an extremely painful condition and difficult to treat.

"To avoid this, we urge people to talk to their healthcare professional about shingles prevention, treatment or long-term care."

* Have You Heard About Shingles? awareness campaign is supported by Sanofi Pasteur MSD, Age Action, Chronic Pain Ireland and the Patients' Association of Ireland

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