I usually document the start of weird illnesses here, so that later, when the doctor asks what my symptoms have been, I can tell her my list of grievances with my biological existence. But for whatever reason, I did not do it this time, opting instead to do it now, amid treatment.
Last weekend at the soccer and baseball games, I accrued a pretty bad sunburn on my forehead. I didn't really think that the sun on a 60-degree day at 9 am would be enough to do much damage, but I was - as usual - quite wrong. Or at least, that's what I thought when at the end of the day, my head felt like it was pretty well baked.
Over the course of the next couple of days, the burn wasn't improving much, but hey, sunburn lives to be annoying. During that time I also received the pièce de résistance component of my Halloween costume this year, a full-face respirator mask. Excited by its arrival, I unpacked it in the car at the post office, put it on, and took a photo - without much inspection. Used from eBay. Probably not wise.
So on Wednesday when the sunburn had turned into a weird, isolated red splotch on the right side of my forehead, I went looking for other explanations. Actually, what was bothering me more than the sunburn itself was this other strange pain in my ear area. It felt kind of like a earache or maybe a toothache, but feeling around over in that area there was definitely some sort of weird, painful lumpy thing.
I did the thing you're not supposed to do, and entered all of these random symptoms into Google and got a nice little anecdote about someone's bout with shingles. Normally, I wouldn't read a lot into what people write about their crazy scary illnesses online, but this case was pretty much on the money in terms of describing what I felt. And with what little I already knew about shingles, I figured it was time to get a doctor's opinion.
The confirmation of my own diagnosis that morning by the doctor was pretty swift. She also said that my throat looked like it had a lot going on in there, and could have been what put my immune system under the stress that it needed to allow the shingles to emerge.
For the uninitiated, shingles is what happens when the dormant chicken pox virus re-emerges. Chicken pox doesn't leave your system when you get over it. Instead, the virus nests itself in your nerve tissue, and becomes dormant. When your immune system is getting kicked in the teeth by some other illness is often when the virus tends to randomly emerge.
When the shingles virus does emerge, it usually attacks a single nerve trunk, so it is localized to one side and one section of the body. In my case, it's the right side of my head. The nerve endings that feel things on your skin are what the virus infects, but the blisters are the symptom of the attack. The blisters themselves don't hurt, but the nerve endings in the area underneath do. Pretty weird.
You can't catch shingles from someone who has it, but you can catch chicken pox (if you've never had it) from someone who has shingles. People who are vaccinated against chicken pox shouldn't catch anything from a person with shingles. Shingles affects 1 in 4 people who have had chicken pox in the past, which is a lot more common than I expected.
It's kind of funny how every time I go to the doctor for something in my throat, several things happen. First, I don't really feel super-bad, but I know enough about what goes on in there to know something is wrong. I'm pretty oblivious to throat pain that others apparently would curl into a ball and die from. Second, the doctor's veil of calm always breaks for a moment upon inspecting the infection. It's like all of her years of training didn't prepare her for what my throat was brewing. I have to remind myself that this happens, or she'd totally freak me out.
I should have known something was up. The doctor was all super-extra-calm. "Do you have any questions for me?" Like what? But after all of the stories I got afterwards about how debilitating shingles can be from my friends (GEE, THANKS, GUYS!!!), I can see why she was a bit trepid about answering questions that would have me completely freaking out, even if it was - as she said - a mild case of shingles.
In any case, lots of antibiotics, lots of antivirals. She said I might have a touch of conjuntivitis, too, probably a spill-over from whatever beastly bacteria was inhabiting my throat. Lovely. Added eye-drops.
Back to these stories. I mean, from people who went temporarily blind, to others who were laid up for months, to others that were permanently scarred... I had a lot to worry about. But what is it actually like?
Well, it's hard to describe. Really, it feels like a cross between sunburn and a headache. That's probably the closest description. The rash is spread under the hair on my scalp, not as much as on my forehead, but enough to be amusingly uncomfortable. Laying in bed feels like my scalp is not attached. I would expect a sunburned scalp to feel pretty much like this. The only real difference in feeling between this and sunburn is that every so often there's a weird shooting pain. It's not too bad; just enough to make me wince sometimes.
Today, the rash seems to have turned into the blisters everyone keeps talking about. They're small, smaller even than the size of a zit, and differently colored. I'm told that when the blisters all scab over, that I'm no longer contagious. I'm looking forward to not being contagious because, well, not being able to simply go outside - among all the other things that I had planned to do this week - is a real bummer. Especially for what is (at least so far) amounting to an inconvenient sunburn-like illness.
On the other hand, the doctor called on Thursday and told me that the culture in my throat was a strep variant, so I'm pretty much all kinds of diseased and should be quarantined for everyone else's good. Hopefully I'll be done with the antibiotics (and the strep) sometime this coming week, too. I've got other plans than being sick!
In all, it's been an interesting brush with illness. It's not over, I suppose, but I'm not feeling too bad about my prospects right now. I just wish it would run its course so I could get on with things.