Shingles survivor Michael Sales encourages older Australians to look after their health

ROAD TO RECOVERY: While pushing himself in training for a cycling race two years ago, Blacktown resident Michael Sales was struck down by shingles that caused nerve damage. Picture: Isabella Lettini
ROAD TO RECOVERY: While pushing himself in training for a cycling race two years ago, Blacktown resident Michael Sales was struck down by shingles that caused nerve damage. Picture: Isabella Lettini

At 72, Michael Sales was cycling six days a week and feeling healthy and strong.

He never imagined he could be struck down by a condition that would leave him unable to read or watch television, let alone leave the house.

Mr Sales, now 74, was riding his bike when the first symptoms of shingles struck his face. Thinking he had been stung by an insect, he took antihistamines for days, and was later prescribed antibiotics for a presumed infection.

By the time blisters appeared and he was diagnosed, it was too late to prevent the disease setting in.

“The doctors said it usually lasts two to three weeks and it can be painful. After that it settles down, it goes away. But in my case, after three weeks, it didn’t go away. The pain got worse,” Mr Sales said.

“I was one of the few unfortunate people who, when the shingles finally goes away, you’re left with nerve damage.”

Mr Sales said the nerve pain, known as postherpetic neuralgia, felt “like hot needles going through my eye, my cheek and my lip”.

He could only sleep for an hour before being woken by the pain. A long-awaited holiday in Tasmania was cut short by the discomfort.

Mr Sales spent weeks basically confined to his house as extreme sensitivity to light left him unable to enjoy his usual hobbies, including cycling and reading.

HINDSIGHT: "I was a typical bloke I suppose, I thought things like that don't happen to me," Mr Sales said. "If you see your doctor early there are ways of overcoming it. I wish I'd done that." Picture: Isabella Lettini

HINDSIGHT: "I was a typical bloke I suppose, I thought things like that don't happen to me," Mr Sales said. "If you see your doctor early there are ways of overcoming it. I wish I'd done that." Picture: Isabella Lettini

“It did affect my mental health in some ways,” he said. “It was quite devastating at the time.”

He relied on meditation to cope with the pain, and borrowed audio-books to alleviate his boredom.

Two years later, the nerve pain has been replaced by a mild irritation that is triggered by bright light. Mr Sales now needs dark glasses to use a computer or watch television.

He believes the chickenpox virus that caused the disease was reactivated because he was pushing himself too hard physically and mentally. People over 70 are most at-risk of developing shingles, as well as complications such as postherpetic neuralgia. Associate Professor Michael Woodward, an aged care specialist, has encouraged Australians to talk to their doctor about government-funded shingles prevention and treatment options.