Shingles not often for the young at heart

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

One in three American adults will contract the shingles at some point in their lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 million people in the U.S. come down with the often-painful disease annually, and a person’s risk for shingles increases as they age.

The same virus that causes chicken pox, varicella zoster virus, is responsible for causing shingles, and anyone who has ever had chicken pox is at risk for shingles. The virus continues to live in a person’s nerve cells after they have recovered from chicken pox, but it usually stays inactive. The person doesn’t realize it’s there, and it remains dormant for most adults.

But for reasons that researchers don’t yet fully understand, varicella zoster reactivates in about one-third of the population, leading to shingles. There are no tests to predict who will get shingles, so doctors have no way of knowing which individuals carrying the virus will contract the disease.

The first sign of the disease is an itch, pain or tingling feeling in one part of the body. In other cases, the skin is numb. Shingles usually only develops on one side of the body, not all over like chicken pox, and it shows up most often as a band halfway around the waistline. However, it can also develop on a person’s face.

A rash will begin to appear one to five days after those first signs. Blisters filled with fluid form on the rash and begin to scab over after about a week. Two weeks to a month later, they go away. The rash may also be accompanied by headaches, fever, chills and an upset stomach.

Scratching can lead to blisters becoming infected and can also result in scarring. Antibiotics can be prescribed to treat such an infection. While shingles cannot be cured, a diagnosis made within three days of the rash’s first appearance can allow for medical treatment, reducing discomfort and drying up the blisters faster.

Medical attention should be sought immediately by anyone who suspects a shingles rash is forming on their face. Blisters around the eyes can lead to eye damage or blindness. Facial paralysis and hearing loss are also possible, as is encephalitis (swelling of the brain) on rare occasions.

In some cases, shingles may only cause a mild itching in the blistered area, but in others it can result in severe pain. For some people that pain can continue even after the rash goes away. That lingering pain is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), and for some, it is so severe that it interferes with simple activities like eating and getting dressed. It can cause sleeplessness, weight loss and mental health issues.

Medicines such as steroids can be prescribed to decrease the pain, and antidepressants can help the patient deal with psychological effects of PHN. The pain typically goes away over time.

Shingles itself is not contagious, but exposure to someone with the disease can cause chicken pox, which in time, can lead to shingles. Anyone with the disease should avoid contact with pregnant women, premature infants and someone with a weak immune system, until the blisters have scabbed over. And while most people with the disease only get it once, it is possible to come down with shingles again later in life.

People with compromised immunity are at greater risk for getting the shingles. This includes those with HIV or cancer, and individuals taking medication following an organ transplant. High levels of stress can affect a person’s immunity, as can fighting off illnesses such as the common cold.

Older adults are also at greater risk for shingles. In fact, people 60 and older account for half of all reported shingles cases, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), and that risk increases by age 70. Older adults are also more likely to suffer the effects of PHN, which can go on for years after other symptoms of the disease have gone away.

There is a vaccine for shingles and people 50 and over with healthy immune systems are advised to get vaccinated. The vaccine is also recommended for those who have already had the shingles. People with weakened immune systems should talk to their doctor before getting the shingles vaccine.


Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines and familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.


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