Shingles is something we often hear about in the home care industry as it often impacts senior adults. The truth is, shingles can creep up on you at any age. Shingles is the result of the varicella-zoster virus which stays in your system once you’ve had chickenpox. 99% of the U.S. population over the age of 50 has had chickenpox as a child. The good news: Chickenpox is a one-and-done disease meaning, you can’t get it again. Bad news: varicella-zoster virus remains dormant in your nerves and can strike at any given time. About 1 million cases of shingles are diagnosed in the United States annually, up to half of people over the age of 60, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Let’s back up and break down shingles and what it is exactly. Shingles or herpes zoster originates from the same virus causing chickenpox. When reactivated, the varicella-zoster virus travels through the nerves causing a burning and/or tingling sensation. Once it travels to the skin, it develops a rash with bumps that eventually turn into blisters that form a hard-crusting surface.
As though the skin condition wasn’t enough, shingles can bring intense pain and itching that last for weeks before gradually fading. Many people say the skin returns to its normal state after a few weeks. Although, some unlucky individuals experience long-term chronic nerve pain, called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) which can be more challenging to treat.
About one-third of the US population will get shingles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since our senior population tends to have more, many among the elderly have more compromised immune systems, their bodies are less capable of recovering from shingles and its effects. Seniors are more likely to experience side effects that can result in serious, long-term health issues. It’s critical to keep the skin as clean as possible to avoid bacterial skin infections which can cause scarring and affect vision and hearing. On a more serious side, complications can result in Bell’s palsy which paralyzes a facial nerve.
The Fight Against Shingles
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone over 60 and older receive the NEW shingles vaccine called Shingrix over the older Zostavax to prevent shingles. While Zostavax lowered the risk of shingles by 51% (and even less among people ages 70 and older), Shingrix is more than 90% effective in preventing shingles in people of ALL AGES. If you’re unsure if you’ve had chickenpox, it’s still recommended to get the vaccine. Seniors unsure of having chickenpox in their youth should get the vaccine.
If diagnosed with shingles, you should wash the skin rash and blisters twice daily with cool water. Use gloves to protect against the spread of the virus. Be sure to cover the rash to reduce the urge to touch or scratch it. As the virus is most contagious during the blister stage, the affected person should avoid contact with others, especially young children and the elderly with compromised immunities, until the rash develops crusts.
As many seniors already cope with different medical conditions and pains due to aging, shingles do not have to be among them. Getting a vaccine can help avoid or reduce its effects, especially on an aging body. Medical researchers report that shingles are more severe over the age of 50, causing complications that can interfere with existing health conditions. Ask about the vaccine next time your aging parents visit the doctor to avoid this debilitating viral infection. If your loved one complains about skin irritation or burning that are shingles symptoms, visit the doctor to determine the cause and get immediate medical attention. Prevention and early treatment can make a difference in your quality of life.