Should Seniors Worry About Shingles?


Remember chickenpox? Many of us do, and it’s not a pleasant memory. Chickenpox usually began with a terrible headache, fever, and fatigue. Then the rash started – and who can forget the itching? It was impossible to get comfortable, kept you up at night, and made you feel miserable in general. No amount of oatmeal baths and calamine lotion could make it much better.

In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 95% of the older adult population was infected by chickenpox during their lifetimes. Since then, the incidence of chickenpox has decreased significantly, thanks to vaccines. However, that still means that the vast majority of older adults had chickenpox and are now vulnerable to developing another condition: shingles.

What is Shingles?

According to the Mayo Clinic, shingles is a viral infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once you contract chickenpox, the virus stays in your body. As you get older, that virus might lie dormant and never cause you another problem. But sometimes it reactivates, and the result is a condition called shingles.

Shingles can appear anywhere on your body. Unlike the rash from chickenpox, which led to lots of itching, shingles can lead to a lot of pain. The rash usually looks like a stripe of blisters that wraps around your torso and often affects just one side of the body. Other symptoms include[1]:

·         Pain, tingling, or burning of the affected area

·         Sensitivity to touch

·         A red rash that appears where the pain is

·         Blisters that look like the fluid-filled blisters of chickenpox

·         Itching around the blisters

Though fever, sensitivity to light, headache, and fatigue are not as common as the symptoms above, they do sometimes occur as well. Shingles usually lasts for a few weeks[2].

The worst part of shingles is the pain. It can be quite intense. In fact, it can be so intense that some might mistake the pain for other issues, such as problems with the lungs, heart, or kidneys. This is especially true for those who never develop the rash of shingles.

Though the pain can be hard to handle, shingles isn’t life-threatening.

Why Does Shingles Flare Up?

About one in every three individuals will develop shingles[3]. No one really knows why shingles flares up in some people but not in others. When it does occur, the reactivated virus travels along the nerve pathways of the body, leading to intense pain. You are more likely to develop shingles if you have certain risk factors.

·         Shingles usually occurs in people over 50, and seniors over the age of 60 are more likely to experience severe complications. Half of all shingles cases occur in those aged 60 and older[4].

·         Some diseases that weaken the immune system can allow the virus to reactivate. This includes conditions like cancer or HIV. Treatments for some of those conditions, like chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer, can also make you more likely to develop shingles.

·         Medications that can compromise your immune system can also allow the infection to develop. This includes long-term use of steroids or the drugs used to prevent your body from rejecting a transplanted organ.

When you have shingles, you are contagious. You can spread the shingles virus to others, and they might develop chickenpox. Though this usually occurs only through contact with the infected areas, especially the open sores, it’s important to keep others safe by avoiding physical contact at all. You should be especially careful to avoid contact with pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, babies and small children, or those who have not received the chickenpox vaccine.

The Complications of Shingles

The most common complication is called postherpetic neuralgia, affecting up to 18% of those who develop shingles[5]. Also known as PNC, this condition occurs when shingles causes long-term pain that lingers long after the blisters have cleared up. The pain occurs when damaged nerves send pain signals to the brain. It can lead to significant disability in later life[6]. For those suffering, a medical alert system with fall detection may be a good option.

Other complications may include:

·         Problems with your vision if shingles occurs in or around an eye. This is known as ophthalmic shingles. This painful infection can lead to losing your vision.

·         Problems with balance, hearing, or even facial paralysis. Shingles can also cause inflammation in the brain, known as encephalitis.

·         Bacterial skin infections might develop if the blisters aren’t treated properly.

According to a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, shingles can lead to a higher risk of stroke in elderly adults. In addition, about one-third of those who develop shingles will go on to suffer serious complications. The risk of complications goes up significantly for seniors and elderly adults over the age of 60[7].

When shingles causes problems with balance and hearing, it can easily lead to a greater risk of falls. It’s best to be prepared for the possibility and opt for a medical alert system with fall detection from Alert1. The emergency SOS panic button alarm can give you peace of mind that in any emergency, help can be summoned within seconds.

Getting Treatment for Shingles

The key to successful treatment of shingles is prompt medical attention[8]. This usually includes the administration of antiviral medication.

Valtrex is the most common treatment and requires three doses every day. Though Zovirax is more effective, it requires five doses per day, which can be challenging for some seniors. Prompt antiviral therapy also significantly reduces the risk of stroke[9]. Again, an emergency button alarm is always a good choice for seniors who may need medical attention quickly.

Pain medication will be a necessity for most seniors who develop shingles. This can include acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, including ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve). Very serious pain might be treated with opioids by prescription.

Some anticonvulsant medications might be prescribed if other treatments don’t help much. These drugs are called gabapentin and pregabalin. They can often cause dizziness, which can lead to a greater risk of falls[10].

When taking these medications, it’s important to do whatever you can to mitigate your fall risk. This is true not only for the anticonvulsant medications, which can make you feel dizzy, but the pain medications as well – especially those given by prescription, as they can make you feel confused and fatigued. If you don’t yet have a personal emergency response system, this might be the time to get one. Being able to reach out for help at the touch of a button can provide excellent peace of mind.

Should You Get the Shingles Vaccine?

The shingles vaccine is safe and can prevent you from developing the infection. In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Shingrix vaccine, which replaces the old Zostavax vaccine. Shingrix is recommended for those who are 50 or older, regardless of whether they have ever had shingles. If you aren’t sure if you had chickenpox as a child, you should get the vaccine. And if you ever had the Zostavax vaccine, you can also get the Shingrix vaccine for better protection.

The vaccine is given in two doses. You will wait between two and six months before getting your second dose. Though the vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get shingles, if you do develop shingles it will likely be less severe and affect you for a shorter period of time.

When to See a Doctor

You should always see a doctor if you develop shingles at age 50 or older, as seniors are at much greater risk of complications. Your doctor needs to monitor you through the course of the infection. If you are elderly, have a weakened immune system, have a chronic illness, or suffer a widespread and painful rash, seek treatment right away[11].

You should also contact a doctor immediately if you develop shingles near one of your eyes. This happens to one of every 100 people who develop shingles. Shingles near an eye can lead to very serious complications with your vision, so immediate treatment is absolutely essential.  In addition, the risk of stroke rises significantly if you develop ophthalmic zoster[12]. Studies have also found that shingles near the eye increases the risk of dementia by threefold[13].

Remember that vision issues can lead to a greater risk of falls. Take care to implement aging in place solutions that can help lessen fall risk, such as taking up throw rugs from the floor, keeping any extension cords tucked away to avoid tripping over them, clearing the home of clutter, and choosing a mobile medical alert device, particularly one with fall detection.

As always, Alert1 wishes you health and safety!