Seniors and Shingles: What You Need to Know

Shingles is a disease that affects a person’s nervous system and causes painful, blistering skin rashes. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. A good percentage of people do not realize that although you recover from chickenpox, the virus remains in your body. 

The varicella-zoster virus remains dormant in some nerve cells. For reasons that scientists and the medical community do not fully understand, the virus can reactivate years later. This viral reactivation results in shingles. 

Individuals who have had chickenpox recover, but the virus does not leave the body. Although it is dormant, it lingers in some nerve cells. For reasons that aren’t totally understood, the virus can reactivate years later, producing shingles.

Quite like chickenpox, people with shingles will feel ill. They will experience a painful rash on their body or face. The primary difference is that chickenpox is a childhood illness and shingles usually occur in older people. Most adults live with the virus in their bodies and never get shingles. However, about 20 percent of adults who had chickenpox as children will get shingles later in life. Most people get shingles when they are 50 years of age or older.

When activated, the virus that causes shingles travels along the path of a nerve to the surface of the skin. Once at the surface of the skin, a rash will appear. The rash usually resembles a band on one side of the face or body. The word “shingles” itself is derived from the Latin word for belt or girdle because often, the rash is shaped like a belt.

Shingles is not contagious. You cannot catch shingles from someone who has it. With that said, you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles. Therefore, if you did not have chickenpox as a child or have been vaccinated, you should attempt to stay away from anyone who has the rash until it has healed entirely. The vast majority of people get shingles only once. Recurrences are possible, although fairly rare.

Who Is at Risk for Shingles?

The bottom line is that anyone with the varicella-zoster virus in their body can be at risk of getting shingles. And that is anyone who had chickenpox as a youngster.

There is no way of knowing who will get shingles. Age and a compromised immune system increase a person’s odds of developing shingles. Immune function wanes as we get older, leaving our bodies more susceptible to infections, including reactivation of the virus that causes shingles. Health conditions and related treatments like HIV, cancer, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and even stress or a cold can weaken the immune system and put a person at a greater risk for shingles.

What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?

Shingles do follow a very clear, almost precise pattern of development. Initially, a person will feel a tingling or burning sensation in a specific area on their skin. After a few, a red rash will break out in this area where the tingling or burning was experienced. In a few more days, the rash will turn into fluid-filled blisters. These blisters dry up and crust over the course of several days. Most cases of shingles last between three and five weeks. Beware: it is possible for a case of shingles to last longer, however.

There are other symptoms beyond the characteristic rash:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Upset stomach
  • Headache

In regard to the symptoms of shingles, the rash itself can be itchy and very painful, depending on the severity and location of a person’s body.

How is Shingles Treated?

An individual exhibiting what appears to be the rash associated with shingles needs to see a doctor promptly. Seeking prompt medical attention allows for a timely diagnosis and the creation of a treatment plan. 

Shingles can often be treated at home, and hospitalization is rarely necessary. With that said, is no cure for shingles. Early treatment with appropriate antiviral medications can help minimize discomfort. Early treatment can shorten the recovery time as well.

In some cases, a doctor may prescribe steroids to speed up the healing process. A physician may also prescribe an antidepressant, anticonvulsant, or analgesic to assist with pain relief. When started within 72 hours of getting the rash, these medicines help shorten the length of the infection and lower the risk of possibly developing complications.

Complications Associated With Shingles

As mentioned previously in this article, shingles typically is not a very serious condition. It can be extremely unpleasant, however. 

Despite not being particularly commonplace, complications from shingles are possible. In some cases, the blisters associated with shingles can become infected, requiring antibiotic treatments. Scarring might also occur. These possibilities underscore the importance of keeping the affected area clean. As was the case with chickenpox, it also is a key reason why a person with shingles should not scratch the rash.

If the blisters occur near or in a person’s eye, lasting damage or blindness may result. (Yes, shingles can occur in a person’s eye.) If you think you or a loved one has shingles in the eye, see an eye doctor immediately. 

Other problems may include hearing loss or brief paralysis of the face. In a small number of cases, swelling of the brain or encephalitis can occur as the result of a case of shingles.

There are also cases in which the rash goes away, but some people are left with long-lasting pain. This is called post-herpetic neuralgia or PHN. The older you are when you get shingles, the greater your chance of developing PHN. 

The pain associated with PHN is felt in the same area where the rash had been. Unfortunately, it is possible for this pain to persist for weeks, months, or even years. 

For a good many individuals, PHN is the worst part of shingles. The sharp, throbbing, or stabbing pain can make some people feel weak and unable to do things they historically enjoy. Their skin can become so sensitive that they cannot bear to wear even soft, light clothing items.

In particularly severe cases, PHN pain can interfere with normal daily activities. PHN can cause depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, and weight loss. 

If any of these problems occur, make a doctor’s appointment promptly. PHN will get better over time in most cases. There are medicines that may help speed up the process of resolving PHN.

Caring for Someone with Shingles

Beyond going to the doctor and taking prescribed medications, there is little that can be done to get rid of the infection that causes shingles. Getting adequate rest, eating healthy meals, and engaging in gentle exercise and stress-free pastimes will encourage quick healing and distract a person from the pain associated with shingles.

How to Prevent Shingles

There are two vaccines available today that can prevent shingles. Both Shingrix and Zostavax, are recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to prevent shingles. Ask your doctor if you or your loved one are candidates for vaccination. The shingles vaccine is typically recommended for individuals aged 60 and older.