Knowing how to spot shingles symptoms and what to do if you develop the condition is essential for protecting your health, especially as an older adult. Seeking medical advice as soon as you suspect you have shingles could reduce the chances of severe illness and complications. Below, you can find out what shingles is, how it affects seniors and what to do when you notice shingles symptoms.
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a viral infection caused by the chickenpox virus. Many people contract chickenpox (varicella-zoster) during childhood. After recovery, the virus remains in some of the nerve cells. Most people don't experience any problems caused by the inactive chickenpox virus in their bodies, but around a third of adults will develop shingles. Shingles is relatively rare in children.
You may notice soreness, tingling or itchy skin in the days leading up to a shingles outbreak. Shingles usually causes a painful, blistering rash, often in a line on one side of the body. Some people also develop a shingles rash on one side of their face. If you have a compromised immune system, you may develop a more widespread rash that looks more like a chickenpox infection.
Shingles can also make you feel generally unwell, and some people experience a fever or headache. The infection can also cause an upset stomach, and you may feel cold and shivery. Most people recover from shingles after 2 to 4 weeks.
You can't catch shingles from another person with shingles. However, shingles blisters often weep fluid, which can transmit chickenpox to people who haven't had it already. People with an active chickenpox infection are more likely to infect others than those with shingles.
You can reduce the chances of passing the chickenpox virus to other people by covering the rash with a dressing until the blisters stop weeping fluid. You're no longer infectious once the rash scabs over, which usually takes between 7 and 10 days.
Many people can treat shingles symptoms at home. Over-the-counter painkillers, calamine lotion and cold compresses can help relieve the pain associated with a shingles rash. You can also try adding a cup of ground oatmeal to your bath if you're bothered by itchy skin.
However, it's a good idea for seniors to contact their health care provider if they suspect they have shingles. Also, seek medical attention if you develop shingles and have a weakened immune system. A widespread or severely painful infection or a shingles rash near your eye also requires medical assistance because the condition could lead to vision loss.
Your doctor may prescribe antiviral medications to help reduce the severity and length of your illness and lower the risk of complications. These drugs work best if you begin taking them as soon as possible after your symptoms appear. Members of the Collinwood assisted living community in Fort Collins can contact the on-site health care team for advice about treating a shingles infection.
Some people develop postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) after a shingles infection, which causes pain in the affected area for months or years after a shingles infection clears up.
Between 10% and 18% of people who get shingles develop PHN. You're more likely to get PHN if you're over 50 years old or have had a particularly severe and painful shingles infection. Certain chronic diseases can also increase the risk of PHN, such as diabetes.
Shingles can also cause other complications, depending on the affected area. Potential rare complications include:
Seniors have a higher risk of developing shingles than the rest of the adult population. Roughly 50% of all shingles cases affect adults older than 60, and your chance of getting shingles is even higher if you're 70 or older. You're also at an increased risk of shingles complications after the age of 60.
Seniors can reduce the risk of developing shingles by getting the Shingrix vaccine. This vaccine is the only shingles vaccine currently approved for people over 50 in the United States. You may be able to get the vaccine for free if you have Medicare Part D insurance or a private health care insurance plan.
You can get the Shingrix vaccine at your doctor's clinic or in some pharmacies. You'll usually need two shots between 2 and 6 months apart, and it's safe to receive a Shingrix vaccine if you've previously received a Zostavax injection. You can get vaccinated whether or not you think you've had chickenpox in the past.
The Shingrix vaccine can reduce your chances of developing shingles by around 90%. It's still possible to get shingles after receiving two doses of Shingrix. However, having the vaccine usually reduces the length and severity of a shingles infection and significantly reduces the chance of developing PHN.
You may be unable to get the Shingrix vaccine if you're allergic to any of the ingredients or you feel unwell on the day of your appointment. The vaccine isn't suitable for treating a current shingles infection. Your doctor or the health care team at the Collinwood assisted living community can help you decide if the Shingrix vaccine is suitable for you.