And Another Thing: Shingles

Ron DeLacy
By Ron DeLacy June 15, 2008 14:46

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now,

Will you still be sending me a Valentine?

Birthday greeting?

Bottle of wine?

– Lennon/McCartney, “When I’m Sixty-four”

They’re playing my song up there. I recently turned 64, which makes me seasoned, experienced, ripened just enough to spew insights on the adventures of aging, and that’s what I’m here for. So try to pay attention.

Where was I?

Yes, of course, aging and its adventures – such as that memory thing, which I have come to accept. I can tell you who won and who lost the World Series, and in how many games, throughout the 1950s, but I can’t tell you who played in it last year.

Also, here is a true story, honest to God: One morning about a month ago, as I was driving up Italian Bar Road I came upon an accident scene – a car crunched up against a telephone poll. A pickup truck had already stopped behind the wreck, so somebody was helping out, but the scene hadn’t been there a half-hour earlier, which told me this mess was fresh. And it looked potentially serious. So I drove to where I could see some bars on the cell phone, and I pulled over and, silently but smugly congratulating myself for being such an alert and responsible senior citizen, I dialed 411.

We seniors also have trouble with digital excess – we can’t set up our surround sound and we don’t know how to take pictures with telephones – and with myriad other quirks and qualities, including  focus, which brings me to my subject for today: Herpes.

Specifically I mean shingles, a disgusting little infection pretty much reserved for us elders. It is sneaky, ugly and mean, and it’s a form of herpes. Medical name for shingles: herpes zoster.

Shingles also is related to chickenpox, a strangely named childhood disease that has nothing to do with chickens or any other kind of poultry. I can only imagine that many years ago some mother coined the term “chickenpox” just so she could tell Aunt Hazel that her kid had come down with chickenpox, not herpes.

But back to shingles. I caught it last summer, and it took a while to learn what had snuck up on me. I had barely heard of shingles before, and I had avoided trying to learn any details, instead just imagining the Creature From the Black Lagoon or picturing a skin problem manifesting itself as a series of ghastly sores overlapping and dripping like shingles on a burning house after an air tanker has dumped a few tons of red slurry on it.

It turns out that’s not what shingles looks like. You itch and burn and you ache and you get a rash. In my case that rash, maybe 5 inches wide, stretched around the right side of my midsection. It looked like poison oak, so I figured that’s what it was, and for a day or so I treated it with a friend’s ointment donation.

That was useless, which was no surprise. My poison oak has always run its wicked course no matter what I pasted onto it. But then the same friend suggested that, since I had mentioned this rash’s burning and hurting just from the movement of my T-shirt, which felt like it was made of bull pine cones, maybe I had shingles.

So I Googled shingles. The Mayo Clinic website had tons of information, including symptoms that matched my case: You feel it before you see it. It breaks out on only one side of the body. It hurts like crazy, way beneath the skin. It can be accompanied by headaches and nausea. And the website offered a photograph that looked like I had posed for it.

I learned that when you get chickenpox as a child, traces of the virus remain in your system, attach themselves to nerve endings and hang there like nasty little punks outside an urban convenience store, waiting for you to get old, and for something like stress to weaken your defenses so they can bust out as shingles and slap you around and take your wallet.

I visited Prompt Care, and when the receptionist and then the nurse and then the doctor asked what was wrong, I didn’t say I had a burning rash. I said I had shingles.

Doctors detest people coming to them with self-diagnoses, rather than just explaining their symptoms, rating their pain on a scale of one to 10 and signing pledges to pay their bills even if their insurance company goes belly up.

But Prompt Care’s Dr. Lyons was different. He agreed with me. Yes, he said, I had shingles, and what I needed was to spend the next 10 days eating three prescription drugs: Acyclovir 800 five times a day, Prednisone 20 once a day, and Hydrocodone as needed.

I Googled all of them, and learned about what they claim to accomplish and what they threaten as side effects.

Acyclovir isn’t a cure, I read, but it could reduce the risk of complications “such as whole body infection or brain infection.”

I’ll take it.

Prednisone is a hormone designed to decrease the immune system’s response to various diseases. You get a sore, it swells. Apparently, Prednisone could cut down the swelling.

Bring it on.

Hydrocodone relieves pain.

Let’s party.

Here were the combined potential side effects – some associated with all three drugs and some with one or two: Headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, mental/mood changes, sleepiness, tingling/numbness in hands or feet, vision changes, swollen lymph nodes, decrease in urination, fever, sore throat, easy bruising/bleeding, yellowing eyes or skin, dark urine,  rash, itching, swelling, severe dizziness, trouble breathing, severe tiredness, black stools, bone pain, “coffee ground” vomit, heartburn, increased thirst and urination, irregular/fast/pounding heartbeat, menstrual period changes, muscle weakness/pain, persistent weight gain, puffy face, seizures, slow-healing wounds, stomach pain, swelling of the feet/ankles, thinning skin, unusual hair growth, unusual skin growths, constipation, lightheadedness, drowsiness and flushing.

I ate my pills for the requisite 10 days, and the shingles disappeared and took all their symptoms with them within about three weeks, which is impressively fast for shingles. I was lucky.

But I sure hate this thin skin and puffy face, and if you’ll excuse me I think I have to flush again.

Retired journalist Ron DeLacy is a musician and founding partner in Doodoo Wah, “a politically incorrect folk duet.” He lives in Columbia.

© 2008,  Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Ron DeLacy
By Ron DeLacy June 15, 2008 14:46
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