Understanding Shingles and How it Affects Seniors

Shingles is a disease caused by the same virus that causes the chicken pox. Typified as a skin disease, shingles is a rash. However, unlike a minor rash that is bothersome and unsightly, shingles causes the individual a significant amount of pain. The rash appears on one side of the body in a band or strip. The early stages of shingles include three key symptoms. First, pain and tingling occurs before the rash actually begins to itch. Then blisters resembling chicken pox begin to appear.

It’s important to understand how shingles and chicken pox are related. For anyone that has had chicken pox, the virus remains in your body well after recovery. This means that at any point in time the virus can reactivate itself. The result is shingles. Many people don’t understand if shingles is contagious. The disease is not contagious to someone as long as the person has already had chicken pox. However, people with shingles are contagious to those who are still susceptible to the chicken pox virus. Babies, young children and unvaccinated individuals are most susceptible, as well as those with weakened immune systems.

Just like chicken pox is a childhood skin disease, shingles is most common in older individuals 60-80 years of age. Research indicates that nearly half of all Americans who have had chicken pox will have gotten shingles by the time they reach 80. This is unfortunate because the elderly experience significantly more pain and risks associated with shingles than younger individuals.

For most people, shingles only develop once. However, studies suggest that those most likely to have a recurring episode were people whose symptomatic pain had lasted more than 30 days with their first shingles incident. If it is severe enough, the pain resulting from shingles can last months and even years. The medical term for this type of pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). Persistent pain and lingering symptoms is fairly common in seniors.

In 2006, the FDA approved a vaccine (Zostavax) to prevent shingles in people age 60 or older. Shingles’ prevalence in the elderly population and the risks for long term symptoms is what has doctors urging seniors to get the vaccine. Even if you don’t recall ever having the chicken pox, or if you’ve already had shingles, you can still get the vaccine. It is a one-dose vaccine with no age maximum on who can receive it. Luckily, studies show that the vaccine reduces the number of shingles cases in seniors by half.