Shingles in Senior Citizens

Have you ever had chickenpox? After exposure to chickenpox, the virus that caused it (varicella-zoster virus) remains in the body, residing in some nerve cells. This virus can become active again in the form of a disease called shingles which results in pain and blisters. Senior citizens are at especially high risk for developing shingles. It is important that seniors and those involved in caring for senior citizens know about shingles.

The onset of shingles is similar to chickenpox in that it produces feelings of being sick and rashes on the body or face. The main difference is when these diseases develop – that is, chickenpox mostly affects children while shingles will always occur in adults, usually after the age of 50. Shingles is somewhat rare (only occurring in 1 in 5 people). Once activated, the virus travels along the paths of the nerves to the surface of the skin producing rashes and pain.

Because shingles is caused by a virus present in the body from a previous infection of chickenpox, it is not contagious. However, you can catch the virus which will cause chickenpox in the recently infected individual. If you have never had chickenpox before, it may be best to stay away from people who develop shingles. Recently, a vaccine has been developed that can keep you from getting shingles. It is only available for senior citizens.

Risk Factors    

Although there is no way to detect whether the dormant virus will become active in someone who has already recovered from chickenpox, there are certain risk factors than make activation of the virus more likely. These include:

  • Advanced age. This may be due to the fact that older people have a harder time of fighting off infection. The risk of shingles dramatically increases after the age of 70.
  • Immunodifficiency – difficulty fighting off infections. If the immune system is compromised for other reasons than those due to aging, you are more likely to develop shingles. Some factors that may weaken the immune system include HIV infection, cancer, cancer treatment, organ transplants, and physical or mental stress.

Symptoms

People who develop shingles often complain of: 

  • Burning, tingling, or numbing of the skin
  • Feeling flu-like sickness – chills, fever, upset stomach, or headache
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Skin that is sensitive to the touch
  • Mild itching to strong pain

There is a natural progression of the disease that proceeds in the following manner:

1. Tingling or burning of the skin occurs.

2. A few days later, a red rash is visible.

3. The rash develops into blisters that dry up and crust over within a few days.

4. The overall duration of the illness can last from 3-5 weeks.

Other complications that can result from shingles are due to blisters becoming infected and causing scarring or blindness if they develop close to the eyes. Other people experience hearing loss, brief paralysis of the face, or swelling of the brain (encephalitis).

Treatment

If you think that you might have shingles, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible in order to treat the virus. Shingles is often treated at home with medications prescribed by your doctor. These medications can be antiviral drugs, pain relievers, or anti-depressants. If these medications are used within 72 hours of a rash developing, they can effectively shorten the duration of the illness and risk for other complications that can occur. Although most people only get shingles once, it is possible for it to recur again.

There are things that you can do to relieve the symptoms of shingles if it develops. These include:

  • Getting enough rest, avoiding stress, and eating right
  • Simple exercises like stretching or walking if it is safe and not too painful
  • Applying a cool damp washcloth to blisters
  • Doing activities that take the mind off the pain like watching TV, reading, or Spending time with loved ones and friends
  • Relaxation or listening to music that you enjoy
  • Talking about your pain and emotions with others that you trust
  • Asking for help when you need it

Some people experience ongoing pain after recovering from the virus. This pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) and usually affects the areas of the body that had rashes before. This pain has been described as sharp, throbbing, and stabbing and can interfere with daily activated for older adults who have developed shingles. Doctors can prescribe medications for the long lasting effects of PHN which older people are more at risk for.