If by chance you one day find yourself with a headache on one side of your head that won’t go away, and the eye on the same side is tearing persistently and you have weird pinpricks of pain along your hairline or on your forehead, you may look those symptoms up online (reputable sites only, please!) and find … not a lot.
A one-sided headache with a tearing eye will bring up many results on cluster headaches, but the headache I had a few weeks back did not match anything else about cluster headaches. Skin pain is a symptom of migraines and some other severe headaches, but that’s described as being pain at a light touch, and I was feeling prickling pains not related to touch. Fast forward through three days of growing headache, the last of them spent mostly on the couch or in bed, with a desperate call to an advice nurse who also came up with cluster headache as the only possibility that fit and advised me to be ready to go to the emergency room (during a pandemic, no less) if it got worse. Then, at the end of day three, I sprouted a rash on my forehead and finally, finally was able to figure out the diagnosis.
Even with the rash in hand as a new symptom to look up, I had to wade through a lot of results that were decidedly Not It—happily, my rash did not match the description for meningitis. Nope, I had shingles, I eventually figured out. But I write this in large part because it should not have been this difficult to figure out what was going on. Once you know you have shingles, all the symptoms are right there. But right up until that rash appeared, the accumulation of other symptoms did not yield results—through my searches or the advice nurse’s. (A special thumbs down to the Buoy Health COVID-19 symptom checker being recommended by Massachusetts, which came up with a kind of headache so rare it was hard to find information on even with the name in hand.)
Another call to the advice nurse yielded a prescription and a masked 2 AM trip to my local CVS for an antiviral. After that I suffered through a day in bed on prescription-strength ibuprofen staggered with acetaminophen, trying not to scream from the railroad spikes apparently being driven into the right side of my head from every angle. A telemedicine appointment with an ophthalmologist yielded the obvious conclusion that she couldn’t see anything beyond that my eye was swollen and I needed to go to my healthcare provider’s “clean” facility so someone could actually look at my eye because, yay, shingles in your eye carries the danger of permanent damage.
Happily, through early and aggressive treatment—something of a challenge these days—I’ve avoided the likelihood of vision loss. But nearly four weeks after I first got that headache, I’m still feeling the effects, and the ophthalmologist told me that too often they see patients who haven’t gotten early treatment and who will as a result have permanent vision loss. The novel coronavirus complicated my ability to get medical treatment beyond Dr. Google, of course, but Dr. Google was not as helpful as I would have hoped. Shingles needs quick treatment, especially—but not only—if it’s in your eye. If you ever find yourself with the early symptoms I describe above, please put it on your list of possibilities!