Tuesday, 11 September 2018 08:00

Understanding shingles in the elderly

Shingles is the close cousin of the highly common childhood rash, chickenpox. They are both caused by the same virus, known as varicella-zoster. However, the difference between these two conditions is that one tends to affect young children, while the other tends to affect the elderly.

So, why is shingles so prevalent in the elderly?

Essentially, shingles is a virus that lingers in the body after someone has had chickenpox. The virus can lay dormant for decades in the body’s nerve cells, and for reasons still not fully understood, can be reactivated to produce shingles in later life.

When the virus is activated, it travels along nerve endings throughout the body to produce a skin rash on the surface of the skin, characterised by small, painful blisters. While not many seniors get shingles in later life, approximately 1 in 5 people who’ve had chickenpox are at risk of developing shingles over the age of 50.

It’s worth noting that shingles is not contagious, so as an adult caregiver or a loved one, you cannot contract shingles from someone you’re caring for. However, if you’ve never had chickenpox, you are at risk of contracting chickenpox from someone with shingles!

Increased risk of developing shingles

As mentioned, if you previously suffered from chickenpox as a child, there is always the risk of developing shingles in later life. But the odds are generally quite low of this happening unless you have a severely compromised immune system caused by a number of factors. In seniors, this tends to be illnesses related to HIV, cancer, chemotherapy treatments, radiation treatment and extreme amounts of stress which can take its toll on the body. 

The symptoms of shingles

Shingles develop in a very obvious, clear pattern. The first sign is a tingling or burning sensation across a specific area of the skin, generally on one side of the body only. After this, the skin will break out in a red rash which then develop into fluid-filled blisters.

These blisters can be both itchy and painful, depending on the severity of the shingles and the location. The blisters can take between 3-5 weeks to completely clear up. Along with this rash, you may also experience chills, fever, headache or an upset stomach.

How to treat shingles

While there is no immediate cure for shingles, there is much that can be done to minimise symptoms and shorten the duration of the virus.

You’ll need to see a doctor immediately after the skin rash has developed and they will usually prescribe an anti-viral medication to reduce its spread and shorten recovery time. You may also be prescribed an analgesic or anticonvulsant medication for pain relief. Seeing a doctor as soon as possible is important to lowering the risk of developing complications down the line!

If you believe a senior loved one is at high risk of developing shingles, you can ask your doctor for a vaccination to keep it at bay. This is highly recommended for anyone over 60 who is suffering from chronic illness or extreme amounts of stress.

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