Shingles and the Elderly

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a serious medical concern for elderly people. Here, the home care professionals at Avila Home Care provide the critical information elderly people need regarding this viral disease.

What is Shingles?

Shingles is a painful rash that develops on one side of the face or body that is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). The rash consists of blisters that often form in patches across one-half of the face, the shoulder or the abdomen. These blisters, which often feel itchy or tingly, will typically scab over in seven to 10 days, and normally clear within two to four weeks.

Shingles can also cause fever, headache, chills and gastrointestinal discomfort. In more serious cases, the shingles rash will cover a larger part of the body, resembling chickenpox, and can even affect the eyes and cause loss of vision. Although most individuals only develop shingles once in their lives, some can develop shingles twice or even three times, and postherpetic neuralgia—nerve pain caused by shingles—can be a long-lasting side effect of the disease in some individuals, even after the shingles rash has cleared.

Who is Susceptible to Shingles?

Shingles is a very common condition that is estimated to affect one in three people within their lifetime in the United States. Although anyone can get shingles—including children and those who have or have not had chickenpox—some individuals are more susceptible to the condition than others. Those 60 and older are particularly susceptible to shingles, as are individuals who have suppressed immune systems, such as those with HIV or certain cancers, like leukemia or lymphoma. Patients receiving immunosuppressive drugs, such as steroids, are also at a higher risk of contracting shingles.

How Does Shingles Spread?

Shingles is caused by the same virus, VZV, that causes chickenpox. After an individual contracts chickenpox, the virus stays dormant within their nerve cells—for some individuals, the virus never reawakens, but for others, the virus will reactivate and cause them to develop shingles, usually after the age of 60. Doctors are not completely certain why VZV reactivates in some individuals and does not in others but theorize that periods of great stress or a suppressed immune system may be the trigger.

Although shingles cannot be passed from one individual to another, the virus that causes it can be spread, and can cause chickenpox in an individual who has never had chickenpox or who was given the chickenpox vaccine. The virus can only be spread to others through contact with the fluid in shingles blisters—before blisters have developed, and after the blisters have scabbed over, the virus cannot be transmitted. This means that shingles is far less contagious than chickenpox, and the chances of causing an infection in another individual is low, provided oozing blisters are covered.

How is Shingles Treated?

An individual who feels they may have shingles should seek medical attention as soon as possible in order to begin an antiviral regimen. Antiviral medications such as acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir may be prescribed by a doctor to minimize symptoms and shorten the length of the disease. Analgesics may also be prescribed the minimize the pain caused by the shingles rash. Similar to treatments for chickenpox, calamine lotion, oatmeal baths and wet compresses can help to reduce burning sensations and itchiness.

How is Shingles Prevented?

The only way an individual can reduce their chances of contracting shingles is by receiving a shingles vaccine. There are currently two FDA-approved shingles vaccines—Shingrix and Zostavax—although Shingrix, approved in 2017, is currently the preferred vaccine. However, Zostavax is still an acceptable alternative for individuals who are allergic to Shingrix or require immediate vaccination where Shingrix is not available. The FDA recommends individuals 50 and older receive two doses of Shingrix, approximately two to six months apart, for maximum effectiveness. While vaccines may not prevent shingles entirely, they will reduce the length and severity of symptoms, and can prevent long-lasting complications from developing.

Avila Homecare Wants the Elderly to Take Control of Their Health

Aging-in-place is a wonderful opportunity for any elderly individual; however, focusing on your health and well-being is absolutely vital to ensuring your golden years are the best ones yet. The home care professionals at Avila Home Care know how much the little things—like having transportation to a doctor’s appointment, or someone who asks whether you’ve taken your medication today—can make a major difference in a person’s quality of life. If you or a loved one is aging in place, take the steps to make the experience a healthy and happy one—contact Avila Home Care today to learn more about their care program.  

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