What Every Senior Needs to Know About Shingles

September 22, 2022

Deriving from the same virus that causes chicken pox, shingles is a disease affecting the nervous system that causes a painful, blistering rash. When dormant, the virus still remains in the cells of the nervous system and recurrences of conditions may occur. Statistically, one in five people who had the chickenpox as a child, get shingles later in life. Shingles rarely occurs in adults younger than 50.

The word “shingles” comes from the Latin word for belt or girdle because the rash often appears in a belt-like shape. It may appear on one side of the face or body. Shingles is not contagious, but the underlying virus may be. For people who have not had the chicken pox or been vaccinated, it is possible to catch chicken pox from someone with a shingles outbreak.

A compromised immune system, from aging, stress, a cold or treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, increases a senior’s chances of a shingles outbreak. The symptoms follow a clear path of development. The patient will start by feeling a tingling or burning sensation on a part of the skin. A few days later, a rash will break out in this same area. The rash may be itchy and/or painful. The rash will turn into fluid-filled blisters 3-5 days later. Most cases last between three and five weeks before the rash completely heals. Additional flu-like symptoms may also be present such as chills, fever, upset stomach or headache.

There is no cure for shingles. As soon as symptoms present themselves, a doctor should be consulted. Antiviral drugs can help minimize symptoms and shorten recovery time. Steroids may also be prescribed to speed up healing. For those in significant pain, an antidepressant, anticonvulsant or analgesic may be given. In addition to helping the painful symptoms, these medications may lower the risk of developing additional complications such as infection and scarring. For rashes near the eyes, blindness can occur, and rashes near the ears can result in hearing loss.

Two shingles vaccines, Zostavax and Shingrix, are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to prevent shingles in adults over the age of 60. The first shingles vaccine, Zostavax, was introduced in 2006 and contains a weakened version of the chickenpox virus. This prompts a patient’s immune system to fight the latent virus and keep it dormant.

A new vaccine, Shingrix, was approved in 2017 with a much higher efficacy rate. This is administered in two does, six months apart and has shown a 90% effective rate in preventing shingles. Medicare Part D and Medicare Advantage Plans cover the shingles vaccine and most private insurance companies cover it as well. There may be a copay involved.

They recommend everyone over the age of 60 get the vaccine unless you suffer from a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin or neomycin. Avoid getting the vaccine during times of compromised immune health such as during cancer treatments. Avoiding this painful rash, if possible, is the best course of action for most seniors.

If you are caring for a senior suffering from shingles, encourage them to see a doctor right away. Help keep them relaxed and try to take the pain off their minds. Keep a cold washcloth available to apply to the rash for more comfort. For more information on elder law services such as Medicaid planning, long-term care planning and estate planning, contact the elder law attorneys at Stouffer Legal in the Greater Baltimore area. You can schedule an appointment by calling us at (443) 470-3599 or emailing us at office@stoufferlegal.com.

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