Growing older certainly has its share of challenges, including a variety of health conditions known for being particularly common among seniors. And perhaps one of the most unexpectedly painful and debilitating of these conditions is the shingles virus.
Herpes zoster, the medical name for shingles, is more common in older adults, whose immune systems are weakened. Other conditions, like surgery, a chronic illness or a traumatic injury can further weaken the immune system, making an outbreak of shingles more common.
Shingles is actually the chickenpox virus living dormant in the body. So, if you’ve had chickenpox in the past (and more than 98 percent of all elder adults have), the risk of acquiring shingles is very high. It’s estimated by the CDC that one million shingles outbreaks occur every year, and that one in three older adults will develop a shingles outbreak in their lifetime.
Often shingles begins without outward signs, but the person may feel fatigue, headache or flu-like symptoms, and then develop pain, burning, itching or tingling along one side of the body or the face. Typically, 2-3 days later, the rash will appear. This red, blister-like rash is found in a band, often across the person’s torso, but can break out anywhere on the body, including the face. The band follows nerve endings that attach to the skin, and the rash and resulting pain can last up to 30 days.
It’s important that those with shingles keep the rash covered, try not to pick or rub the blisters, wash hands thoroughly and avoid those who have never had chickenpox, especially:
- Pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine;
- Premature or low birth weight infants; and
- People with weakened immune systems, i.e.: those with the HIV virus, those on organ donation medications, and those on chemotherapy
The symptoms of shingles can be treated with antiviral medications, and starting the medication at the first sign of the viral rash can help decrease the length and severity of symptoms. Cool wet compresses, oatmeal baths, calamine lotion and analgesics will also help decrease the discomfort of the rash.
Some people may have permanent scarring or skin color change as a result of the rash. It is rare, but some people may also develop PHN, or postherpetic neuralgia, in which the person suffers from long-term nerve pain that may last for months or years after the rash has disappeared. It is even more rare, but also possible, for shingles to lead to hearing loss or visual impairment when the virus involves the nerves involving the ears or eyes.
Because shingles can result in a painful, contagious rash and other uncomfortable side effects, and there’s no way to predict who will succumb to the more serious complications of the virus, the CDC recommends all adults over age 60 receive the one-time shingles vaccine.
Health issues, like shingles, can be daunting at times, but having a senior care agency you can count on can make all the difference in ensuring your senior loved ones are supported and cared for during times of illness or when in need of just a little extra care and attention. Looking for a place to start? Give Nightingale Homecare a call at 602-504-1555 or contact us online.