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Shingles and the Risk to Seniors

You have probably heard about shingles – a viral infection that is caused by the same virus responsible for chickenpox. If you have had chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in your body; present in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. When a shingles outbreak occurs, the nerve roots are infected, which is what causes the deep, debilitating pain associated with shingles. The pain travels along nerve pathways to the skin, which produces the shingles we see on the skin. The pain can last for a few weeks, months or even years after the outbreak.

Doctors are uncertain what causes the virus (varicella-zoster) to re-activate, however it is known that shingles are much more common in elderly people who have less efficient immune systems. A weakened immune system can be due to chronic illness or treatments seniors are experiencing. Doctors also believe things like psychological stress could be a factor in a shingles outbreak. It is important for seniors to be educated on the symptoms of shingles because some seniors may have the pain without the physical symptoms. In these cases, a shingles outbreak can be mistaken for heart, lung or kidney problems.

Symptoms

Shingles can be extremely painful and incapacitating, and for most people only a small section of the body is affected. Unlike chickenpox, shingles is normally limited to the right or left side of the body, most commonly a rash that wraps around one side of torso. It can also present on the side of the neck or face, even near the eyes.

Severe tingling or pain in the affected areas, followed by a red rash are one of the first symptoms, progressing to fluid-filled blisters that can break open and become itchy as they heal. The skin will be highly sensitive to touch, often making it painful to even wear clothing over the affected area. In extreme cases, people can have a fever or headache, be sensitive to light and experience heavy fatigue.

Risk Factors

For persons with compromised immune systems, a bout of shingles can wreak havoc and cause other complications. People who are higher risk include anyone over the age of 50, with the risk increasing as you age. Radiation or chemotherapy treatments can drastically reduce your body's ability to fight infection or disease and could provide an opening that triggers shingles. Diseases that weaken your immune system can also be a risk factor for shingles.

Complications

Complications from shingles can be quite serious, especially for seniors who may already have another chronic condition.

  • If the shingles outbreak is on the face, danger to the eye and the potential danger to long-term vision is a concern.
  • Bacterial infections that can cause scarring
  • Toxic Shock Syndrome from a bacterial infection
  • Hearing problems
  • Pneumonia
  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of sleep

Research shows that seniors who develop shingles are also at an increased risk of a stroke or a heart attack. The risk of a stroke is more than doubled in the week following a shingles outbreak.

Treatment

There is an approved vaccine available to prevent shingles. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that healthy adults age 60 and over receive the vaccine. For people with compromised immune systems, a conversation with your healthcare provider will determine if the vaccine is appropriate. Most people will only experience shingles once in their lifetime, but the vaccine should still be considered for those who have had a shingles outbreak.

Talk to your healthcare provider or the wellness team at Evergreen Senior Living to find out if the shingles vaccine is right for you. It may be covered by your Medicare Part D prescription drug plan.

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