Do you remember getting chickenpox as a kid? You may remember a few weeks of red spots, itching, calamine lotion and time off from school. While having chickenpox as a child helps provide lifelong immunity to the disease, the virus can live on and can come back to haunt adults in the form of shingles. Shingles primarily affects adults over 50 and can be especially dangerous after age 65. Shingles can’t be cured, but it can be treated and prevented.
What Is Shingles?
The Mayo Clinic categorizes shingles as a painful, but non life-threatening condition. However, for people over the age of 60, the chance of complications from shingles increases significantly.
Shingles is related to childhood chickenpox and caused by the same virus, the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). After you recover from chickenpox, the virus continues to live in some of your nerve cells. It stays dormant, so you don’t know it’s there. Most adults living with the virus in their bodies never get shingles. Unfortunately, for one in three adults, the virus can reactivate and affect the nerves. For most adults, the normal course of shingles follows this pattern:
- The first stage starts with pain, numbness or itching.
- Symptoms usually last about two to four weeks.
- Usually a small part of one side of the body or face is affected.
- After the first two weeks, a red rash and fluid-filled blisters may appear.
- Seven to 10 days later, the blisters begin to dry up and form a crust.
- The rash will then slowly disappear.
For many adults, shingles will be painful and uncomfortable, but they should see relief after a month and suffer little to no long-term effects.
Shingles Symptoms in Seniors
Unfortunately, for seniors and others with weakened immune systems, shingles can be more complicated. Because shingles is a viral infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus), the condition often presents in similar ways. The rash in elderly people with shingles is caused by the infection and frequently shows up as a single stripe of blisters (also referred to as shingles) that wraps around either side of the torso, but not both sides. Seniors with shingles are likely to suffer from common symptoms like:
- Shooting pain
- Rashes or blisters
In addition to these uncomfortable and largely skin-related symptoms, people with shingles may also experience more severe symptoms like:
- Sensitivity to light
- Upset stomach
While an adult’s chances of suffering from shingles increases with age, the elderly are especially susceptible. Reasons for this include:
- They are likely to have a weaker immune system.
- The chickenpox vaccine wasn’t available until 1995, so they were more likely to be exposed to chickenpox as children.
- They may also be at risk if they’re taking drugs to support chemotherapy or after an organ transplant.
Long-Term Effects of Shingles in the Elderly
How serious is shingles in the elderly? While most seniors with shingles will only suffer for a few weeks, some may face long-term complications. The most common complication is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This is long-term nerve pain that continues in the areas where the shingles rash occurred long after the rash is gone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 10 to 18 percent of people with shingles will also experience PHN, and the risk increases with age.
Nerve pain can continue for months or even years after an episode of shingles, and recovery from shingles in the elderly can take time. The pain can be so severe and debilitating that a doctor may need to prescribe medication to manage discomfort. While the long-term effects of shingles in elderly people can vary from case-to-case, complications can include:
- Vision loss
- Neurological challenges
- Skin infections
- Hearing problems
- Balance issues
- Brain inflammation (encephalitis)
Fortunately, a shingles vaccine may help prevent the disease, reduce the severity, and the risk of postherpetic neuralgia.
Is Shingles Contagious?
As seniors age, they become more prone to catching infections such as pneumonia. Although age may be a factor in this condition, the cause of shingles in the elderly, and in all people, is the varicella-zoster virus.
Is shingles contagious to the elderly?
People with shingles are contagious only to people who are not immune to chickenpox. Many people are immune to chickenpox through vaccines or previous infections. Those who are not immune and have direct contact with the rash open sores may develop chickenpox.
Once a person has chickenpox, they may develop shingles. While what causes shingles in seniors — or anyone else — is not known, it is most prevalent in seniors and people with weakened immune systems. When a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus enters the nervous system and lingers, inactive, in the tissue near the spinal cord and brain. If the virus is reactivated, it travels along nerve paths to the skin and shingles develop.
Can an Elderly Person Die of Shingles?
Though people often wonder how dangerous shingles is in the elderly, according to the Mayo Clinic, there are many treatment options to make the uncomfortable, but non-life threatening condition easier to manage and decrease the risk of complications. For seniors, the shingles vaccine may be a good option to prevent or curb the condition. Likewise, maintaining a healthy immune system can help prevent shingles and other infections.
How Long Does It Take to Recover from Shingles?
As with most ailments, it varies. Cases that are not treated promptly or has complications will likely take longer to resolve than a more mild case.
So, in general, how long does shingles last in the elderly? Two to six weeks is the most frequently cited window for shingles cases. Although most people will only get shingles once, it is possible for the condition to recur.
How to Prevent and Treat Shingles in the Elderly
There is no cure for shingles, but prompt treatment can lessen the duration and severity of the condition. The Mayo Clinic recommends promptly seeing a doctor if shingles is suspected. Treatment for shingles in seniors is most commonly a combination of prescription antiviral drugs and appropriate pain relief.
Oral antiviral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex) can decrease the severity of the symptoms, but only if they are started within 72 hours of the appearance of the rash. Steroids, anticonvulsants and other pain management medications can also help mitigate symptoms, but they should only be used under a doctor’s supervision.
The best way to prevent shingles in the elderly is not to get it in the first place. Healthy adults over age 50 are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated against shingles. The vaccine called Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine) provides strong protection against shingles and PHN and is given in two doses separated by two to six months. Some studies show that the vaccine may reduce shingles by 50 to 75 percent.
A little prevention can go a long way. If you feel that you may be at risk for shingles, talk to your caregiver or doctor about getting vaccinated.
The article above is provided for informational purposes only. Families should always speak with their healthcare providers before making any health decisions for loved ones.
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