Did your senior parents have the chickenpox in their youth? Chances are they did as nearly 99% of the U.S. population over the age of 50 had them. The good news is that those who had chickenpox are immune to getting the common childhood disease again. The bad news is that the varicella-zoster virus that causes the disease doesn’t go away and remains dormant in the nerves. If reactivated later in life, the virus can cause shingles. About one-third of the U.S. population gets shingles, many who are over the age of 60. But there are steps you can take to prevent your aging loved one from getting shingles.
Shingles or herpes zoster originates from the same virus causing chickenpox. When reactivated, the varicella-zoster virus travels through the nerves causing a burning or tingling sensation on one side of the face, chest, back or waist. When reaching the skin, it develops into a rash with bumps that turns into blisters that eventually pop and form a hard crust on the top.
Along with a nasty skin condition, shingles can cause intense pain and itching that last for weeks before gradually fading. In most cases, the skin returns to its normal state. Some unlucky individuals experience long-term chronic nerve pain, called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) that is difficult to treat.
As many among the elderly have compromised immune systems, their bodies are less capable of recovering from shingles and its effects. As a result, the aged are prone to experience side effects that can result in serious, long-term health problems. Bacterial skin infections can cause scarring and affect vision and hearing. Serious complications can result in Bell’s palsy that paralyzes a facial nerve.
No scientific evidence exactly explains what triggers the dormant virus that caused chickenpox. Some researchers associate the condition with stress or a weakened immune system. But, unfortunately, anyone can get it at any time – even decades after having the chickenpox. That means most of the adult population is at risk.
While shingles are less contagious than chicken pox, the virus can spread during the blister stage to someone who never had chicken pox. The recipient can develop chicken pox but not the shingles. Covering the rash and washing hands helps prevent the spread of the virus.
While getting shingles again is rare, WebMD reports that recurrences are more than 5x more likely among people who experienced pain for more than two months with their initial shingles attack. That risk factor declines for people who suffered pain for less than 30 days. Recurrent attacks happen more often with women and those who were over age 50 during their first attack.
The CDC recommends that men and women aged 60 and older receive the new shingles vaccine called Shingrix over the older Zostavax to prevent shingles and PHN, the chronic pain condition that lingers after shingles. While Zostavax lowered the risk of shingles by 51% (and even less among people ages 70 and older), Shingrix is more than 90% effective in preventing shingles in all age groups.
Seniors unsure of having chickenpox in their youth should get the vaccine. The CDC also recommends the Shingrix vaccination to those who already received a Zostavax because of its greater effectiveness. However, individuals should wait at least 2 months after getting Zostavax.
While Zostavax required one dose, Shingrix needs two for long-term protection. While providing increased protection against shingles, Shingrix has more side effects including soreness, redness, and swelling at the shot site. Some recipients reported headaches or achiness that diminish after a short period.
Those who do get the shingles after receiving the vaccine experience reduced effects and longevity of the condition. As immunization rates of this vaccine are low among adults, encourage the senior in your life to get this shot to avoid the pain and suffering of shingles.
Medicare Part D -- the prescription drug plan for people ages 65 and older -- covers the cost when administered at an approved location. Check with private insurance carriers for coverage.
All is not lost if someone does acquire shingles. If identified within 72 hours of onset, an anti-viral medication such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir) and valacyclovir (Valtrex) can help reduce pain and length of the outbreak.
Seniors with shingles symptoms should immediately visit the doctor to verify the condition. Even if diagnosed after the 72-hour timeframe, a physician can prescribe pain medication and antibiotic ointments. Should shingles spread to the eyes, consult an ophthalmologist immediately for care.
During onset, your senior and his/her caregiver should wash the skin rash and blisters twice daily with cool water. Use gloves to protect against the spread of the virus. Cover the rash to reduce the urge to touch or scratch it. As the virus is most contagious during the blister stage, the affected person should avoid contact with others, especially young children and the elderly with compromised immunities, until the rash develops crusts. If pain or rash lingers, contact the doctor who can recommend additional treatment.
As many seniors already cope with different medical conditions and pains due to aging, shingles do not have to be among them. Getting a vaccine can help avoid or reduce its effects, especially on an aging body. Medical researchers report that shingles are more severe over the age of 50, causing complications that can interfere with existing health conditions. Ask about the vaccine next time your aging parents visit the doctor to avoid this debilitating viral infection. If your senior complains about skin irritation or burning that are shingles symptoms, visit the doctor to determine the cause and get immediate medication. Prevention and early treatment can make a difference in the quality of life of both you and your senior.
1 https://www.cdc.gov/media/pressrel/2008/r080515.htm 2 https://www.cdc.gov/shingles/about/overview.html
» Read: What Your Skin Is Telling You.
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