In which I am pummelled into viral submission

I am only happy to write about this today because I suspect it is finally almost over. I’m no longer so superstitious that I think I’m tempting fate by doing so now.

In short, I’ve been ill for a long time. It all started off in mid-April, probably about the same time that I finally stopped wearing a mask on public transport. It was only a tickly cough, but when it ambushed me out of the blue, I’d hack uncontrollably for a minute or two, then find myself utterly voiceless for the next five, until it would all be fine again, sometimes for hours. When it happened during meetings with collaborators or doing tutorials with my students, it was embarrassing and debilitating, but I learned to always carry a pack of Ricola lozenges with me, which could usually get the coughing under control fairly quickly.

After a conference in Rome, I flew home with a sore throat, which developed into cold symptoms to keep the pesky cough company. In the first week of May, I tested positive for COVID – a deep red line that developed as soon as the sample flowed over the zone. It hit me pretty hard, sort of halfway between a cold and influenza, but after a few weeks my cough was fading and I was starting to feel better.

Enter another sore throat, which waned after a few days, and then a much sharper one, alongside acute conjunctivitis in both eyes, and the return of the stupid cough. For exactly 24 hours, I lost all sense of smell, restored the next day like a switch flipping. The pain and swelling in my throat became so bad that for a week, I could hardly swallow and certainly couldn’t sleep, so I ended up binge-watching, in small insomniac chunks, the 2016 version of War and Peace (essentially Jane Austen but with furry hats and amputations) between two and four in the morning. The moon transformed night by night outside my window from a slim crescent abutting Venus to a fat waxing half, leaving the more steady planet far behind. Sometimes, the sound of a neighbour coughing uncontrollably would float across the dark gardens, and it was strangely comforting to know I wasn’t alone. Solidarity, my comrade-in-arms.

Last night, for the first time in ages, I managed a full night sleep, and today, the ache in my throat has dwindled to a faint pain (though my friend the stupid cough lingers). This weekend, I took pleasure in the warm breezy weather, attacking the jungle in our back garden, hacking away at vines and shrubbery and pulling long, satisfying strings of goosegrass and bindweed from the beds. There are so many lovely things blooming now: delicate beauty bush, mock orange, red conker candles, lilac, anemones, irises, thyme, and of course the roses. A vase of them sits by my computer now, leaching sweet scent. It’s been pretty outside for weeks, but when you’re ill, it’s hard to feel the love.

I’m not writing this because it’s original or even unusual, but it comes after a long illness, with some similarities, I suffered for two months at the end of last year. The throat pain is in exactly the same place – but fortunately this time I didn’t have to go to hospital. There is still so much we don’t understand about viral infections, how they play out and how they linger. How many separate fresh infections have washed over me, ebbing and flowing, and how many were relapses of what was already there? Am I getting so ill because I wasn’t properly exposed for the past few years due to Covid precautions? Or is it just the inevitable consequence of “immunosenescence” – my defences deteriorating with age? (This is a topic I regularly teach undergraduates and medical students, but it’s never before felt real. Until now. I can almost feel my responder cells dawdling inappropriatately and secreting all the wrong signals.)

Perhaps one day we will have lateral flow tests for all the respiratory viruses, and we can monitor these strange battles raging in our bodies in real time. Or better yet, maybe someone can use RNA vaccine technology to finally target all the cold viruses, all together. One handy annual seasonal jab to take away this pesky misery once and for all. Back in 1946, the Common Cold Unit was established to try to cure us of these first-world-problem scourges, but despite a lot of interesting knowledge generated while it was active, we still don’t have a cure. One could of course argue that colds aren’t important enough to try to seriously tackle, but they certainly blunt our productivity significantly. Personally I think it would be research money well spent – but then, I would say that: I’ve been under the cosh since what feels like the Jurassic era.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Gardening, Illness, Research, The ageing process. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to In which I am pummelled into viral submission

  1. Henry Gee says:

    Oh gosh Jenny – how awful. The is one reason why me and Mrs Gee have become recluses and always wear masks in enclosed public spaces, even though we remain a small minority. I hope you recover soon.

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