One day–a Friday– I suddenly developed a severe toothache in my upper and lower back teeth in the left side of my mouth. As someone who’s had a history of dental problems, I initially thought, “Oh, great! What now?”
But even as I was chalking it up to yet another dental issue rearing its ugly head, there were red flags that there was something unusual about this toothache. For one, a majority of my dental problems have always been in the right side of my mouth– not the left. Two, if this was a dental problem, it didn’t make sense that out of the blue, two teeth would suddenly develop severe cavities overnight, and with the same intense level of pain.
Three, having experienced excruciating toothaches in the past, I knew that although the pain seemed typical, there was something about it that was just a tad different. Usually when you suffer a toothache, it’s in reaction to something, like sugar, heat, cold, or even the simple act of running your tongue over the affected tooth. Furthermore, the pain spikes in peaks and valleys. Whatever pain I was feeling seemed more like a dull, flat, continuous ache radiating from deep inside the teeth themselves and not as a response to any outside stimuli.
Lastly, the most obvious tell-tale sign that something more was going on than a usual toothache was the “temperature”. The pain had a warm sensation that I’d never felt before. Again, tooth pain doesn’t feel like that at all, which should have alerted me immediately that what I was coming down with a serious illness. But because I’d never experienced shingles a day in my life I had no idea what was going on. So I just assumed I was suffering a dental problem.
Pain Spreads and “Pimples” Appear
The next day (Saturday), not only did the toothache continue, I developed more symptoms. First, a small, barely discernible lump appeared in my left jaw right under my ear. I also developed what looked like pimples on my left temple right below the scalp. But I didn’t think much of these symptoms at the time, because there was nothing really unusual about them. The so-called “pimples” looked and felt like a typical acne breakout I always get from PMS, and besides, the small lump in my jaw could’ve been what’s known as “referred pain” (a result of the supposed “dental problem” I was experiencing).
So as far as I was concerned, nothing really major was going on– in the midst of suffering a dental crisis, my skin had also broken out. No big deal. I brushed aside the “breakout”, then went to work with the “mild toothache”, contemplating whether I should use my free day from work (which was the next day), to see the dentist..
I didn’t expect anything unusual to happen at work. I just expected to sit there nursing this toothache. Instead what happened was that the lump under my ear and jaw not only grew larger, but became painful. The ache in my back teeth also seemed to grow exponentially with each passing hour. As I groaned, a co-worker told me that it would be best to get this checked out. I initially agreed with her, but not being a fan of running to the hospital for every problem, I decided to tough out whatever it was I was experiencing with some aspirin and bed rest. Besides, I was convinced it was all just a dental problem, and I didn’t want to risk embarrassing myself by bothering the ER with a simple issue that could’ve been handled by just seeing the dentist.
Later that night, I was woken out of a sound sleep by pain emanating from the ever-growing lump under my left ear. Making matters worse, the pain in my back teeth was also going full blast. “Okay,” I thought, “what the hell is going on here? And am I looking at another root canal?” Still thinking this was all just a dental issue, I took more aspirin and distracted myself from the pain by doing more internet research on what could have been afflicting me. The closest match was an abscess so I tried out at least one “home remedy” to see if that would do anything and took two aspirin to boot.
Several hours later, it was all too clear that going to a dentist was out of the question. I had to go to the ER– no ifs, ands, or buts. I noticed that the “pimples” on my left temple had become more pronounced and were getting sensitive to the touch. They weren’t painful or anything, but they tingled as I brushed my fingers across them.
Then there was the pain. By the middle of Sunday afternoon I was in complete agony, especially from the lump in my jaw, which seemed to be the epicenter of whatever was ailing me. Especially worrisome about the pain was that it had never really abated in the 24 plus hours I had first come down with symptoms, not even after downing some aspirin and staying in bed. Given how much worse it was getting and the fact that it had actually woken me up earlier that morning, I knew that by Monday morning I would be climbing the walls without some medical intervention. I also sensed that any type of pain that got worse over time instead of better meant that something much more serious than a simple dental issue was going on.
So to the ER I eventually went, fearful of what to expect. “Maybe this is nothing more than an abscess,” I thought, “and I’m just annoying hospital staff with a minor problem.” Maybe I’d be subjected to a round of tests, I contemplated, only for the problem to be a complete and total mystery. The worst case scenario, however, was that perhaps this pain was a sign of something fatal. Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck when I sat there waiting to be seen by a doctor.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. As soon as the ER doctor saw me, he said matter-of-factly, “You have herpes zoster.”
“Herpes?” I said apprehensively.
Almost anticipating what I was thinking, he explained to me that the herpes I had wasn’t the sexually transmitted kind, but merely a reactivation of the chicken pox virus, which can be caused by stress, not enough sleep, or an auto-immune related illness. It was so easy for him to diagnose because I had all the classic signs: pain, accompanied by a “rash” on one side of my body that ran more or less in a line along a particular nerve (the so-called “pimples”). In my case, this rash ran along a nerve that goes from the top of one’s head down through the jaw. It had started at the temple when I first got sick, but by the time I got to the ER it began spreading down my left eyelid.
Immediately, I was given a painkiller and an antiviral, plus prescriptions for enough painkillers, skin ointment, and antivirals to last me the week. I wasn’t out of the woods yet, though. Because shingles appeared to be affecting my left optic nerve, the doctor was concerned about additional complications that could affect my eyesight. So he scheduled me for a follow up visit with an eye doctor.
There was the possibility of another complication as well– apparently, some people develop an unfortunate complication called postherpetic neuralgia, which means that they still experience nerve pain long after shingles has been treated and cured. While it can last for a few months, in some cases it lasts for several years– and no, there’s no cure for it.
A Hellish Few Hours
When I got back home, I felt relief for the first time in two days after taking the painkiller I’d been given in the ER. I imagined it holding me over until the next day when I could get my prescriptions filled. Instead what happened was that the painkiller only lasted a few hours, so that at 3 in the morning I was jolted again out of a sound sleep by far worse pain than I’d ever experienced since coming down with shingles– or ever. Not only were my two back teeth alive with pain, the rash on my temple–which by then had spread to my scalp– was now on fire. To say this was unbearable would be an understatement. I literally felt as if a dentist had performed a root canal on both my teeth without the benefit of novacaine, then spilled some sulphuric acid on my scalp for good measure.
With no local pharmacies open that hour, it would be a long and agonizing wait until I could finally get one. Never could I imagine time passing that slowly, but it did– so slowly, in fact, that it seemed as if 8 am would never come. Luckily it did, and by the afternoon I was in complete and total painfree bliss. For the next week and a half I dutifully followed instructions left to me by the ER to avoid complications. This included taking my meds like clockwork; being careful not to spread the shingles by touching the blisters; and avoiding certain people at work, such as the elderly, pregnant women, and those who’ve never had chicken pox.
Two weeks later I was completely recovered, with nothing really to show for it other than a few healing blisters on my forehead.
Why It Took So Long to Seek Help
In retrospect I should’ve gone to the ER as soon as the symptoms of shingles showed up. But there’s a reason why I didn’t at first. It had less to do with the unfamilliarity of shingles than it did with the fact that in some ways shingles can be a “trickster.” Depending on where and how it manifests itself, it can appear to be something quite typical. In my case, the pain resembled a dental problem, and the blisters looked like nothing more than an acne breakout from PMS. There was no way I could’ve really guessed something was wrong because of how much in the beginning it resembled other symptoms. It had to take pain before I realized what was happening.
Because shingles can sometimes mimic common medical ailments, it may seem impossible for the uninitiated to know when they have come down with it. But I think there are some helpful tell-tale clues:
1. You sense on a deeper level that there’s something “off” about the “typical” pain you’re experiencing. The muscle strain, toothache, neck pain, or other type of bodily pain you have kind of “feels” like something you’ve experienced before, but there’s something about it that’s not quite right. It acts and feels subtly different– for example, doesn’t respond to stimuli in the same way and– more importantly– doesn’t seem to die down after a reasonable amount of time.
2. This pain is accompanied by a rash or cluster of cysts or blisters on one side of your body. Like shingles pain, this sudden skin condition may at first seem to resemble something normal– like an allergic reaction or an acne breakout. But eventually it will either be extremely painful at worst or feel sensitive (“tingly”) at best.
If you experience these symptoms, don’t assume it’s all just carpal tunnel or a sprained leg muscle or your teeth acting up or the usual pain that comes with a common ailment. Seek help immediately. Shingles in itself is not life-threatening, but if left untreated, it can lead to severe complications such as facial paralysis, chronic pain, bacterial infection, meningitis, and a few other problems that can compromise your quality of life. So the sooner you get shingles treated, the more easily the road to recovery will be, and the less complications you will face.
1. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Shingles”, Mayo Clinic
2. “Shingles Health Center”, WebMD