The Deadly Threat of Shingles to Senior Adults

In the United States, about one out of three senior adults are at risk of developing shingles. Also known as “herpes zoster”, this disease is due to the infection of varicella zoster virus. Incidentally, this virus is also responsible for chickenpox in children and adults.

Anyone who have had chickenpox may get shingles, usually in older adults age 60 years and older. People with immune system problems like leukemia, cancer or HIV and those taking immunosuppressive drugs like steroids are at greater risk of this disease.

Learning the Signs and Symptoms of Shingles

A patient with shingles often develops red and painful rashes on either side of his face and body. Then, these rashes become blisters which usually scab after seven to ten days. It will clear up after two to four weeks.

Sometimes, before the development of rashes, the patient will experience itchiness, pain, or a tingling sensation where the rashes will form. Once the rashes develop, it can spread all over the body especially if the patient suffers from a weakened immune system.

In rare and extreme cases, shingles may affect the eye which may result to blindness or temporary loss of vision. Other signs include headache, fever, chills, and tummy ache.

How is Shingles Transmitted & What are the Complications

Shingles is not contagious but the varicella zoster virus can be transmitted from a person with an activated shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox. Because of this, any person exposed to the shingles virus may develop chickenpox. The virus may be passed to another person if he has direct contact to the fluid of the rash or blisters.

It is important to remember that a person only becomes contagious during the blister phase, not before it appears. The patient stops being infectious once the rashes develop crusts. Shingles is not as contagious as chickenpox but patients should remember to cover the rash to decrease the possibility of transmission.

Once a patient gets infected, it is necessary to watch out for complications. Serious complications may lead to blindness, pneumonia, deafness, and encephalitis or brain inflammation.

The most dangerous complication, aside from death, is the development of post-herpetic neuralgia. PHN causes severe pain in the rash locations even when all the rashes are gone. Furthermore, it can be debilitating, making the person unable to perform his daily tasks.

PHN may resolve after a few months but in extreme cases, it may remain for many years. This is life-threatening to older adults as it can cause severe pain and paralysis.

Can Shingles be Prevented?

Fortunately, shingles vaccine is readily available in local drug stores and flu shots centers like CVS and Kroger but patients need a prescription from a doctor before it is administered. Zostavax is the name of the vaccine and it can help lessen the chances of developing shingles or experience long-term pain. The Shingles Prevention Study, the risk of getting shingles increases as the person gets older.

The FDA approves the use of Zostavax starting age 50 but based on the recommendation of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults aged 60 and above should get one dose. Patients who already had shingles should still get vaccinated to avoid future occurrences.

There is still no CDC recommendation for adults aged 50 to 59. Patients in this age range should talk to their doctors for the health benefits and possible risks of getting vaccinated. It is important to understand that there is currently no long-term studies available that show how effective shingles vaccine is in this age group.