Nearly a third of Americans will develop shingles during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disease, also called herpes zoster, can occur at any age, but it is most common among adults over 60 due to weakened immune systems. Here’s what you should know if your senior loved one develops the disease.
Signs and Symptoms
The same virus responsible for chicken pox causes shingles. The virus might lie dormant in those it has affected for decades before awakening and temporarily residing along a particular nerve. In addition to causing a painful rash, the disease may be accompanied by such flu-like symptoms as feeling feverish or weak.
The shingles rash can manifest anywhere on the body, though it commonly appears as a belt of blisters on the body’s trunk area — the chest, back, waist, or rib cage — or on the face. The virus is often invisible for the first few days. During this time, your senior may feel a tingling, burning, or itching sensation on some part of her skin. The affected area then erupts into a red rash, followed by fluid-filled blisters that appear over a period of about five days.
The whole episode typically lasts from two to four weeks as the blisters crust over and disappear. For some, however, shingles pain can last much longer.
Complications and Risk Factors
Complications of the disease may include scarring, a greater risk of bacterial infections, or sight or hearing impairment. In rare cases, the disease can lead to partial facial paralysis or brain inflammation. A recent study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases also found that shingles can increase the risk of stroke. These complications may increase a senior’s risk of falling.
If your senior loved one experiences residual pain after the virus disappears, this is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN usually passes in a few weeks or months, though in some cases it can last years. The older the individual, the higher the likelihood of PHN other complications.
Treatment and Prevention
There is no cure for shingles, and prevention is the single most effective approach to controlling the virus. Fortunately, a highly effective vaccine is recommended by the CDC for those over age 60. The FDA has also approved its use for those between the ages of 50 and 59.
If the disease does appear, the sooner treatment is sought, the more effective it will be in relieving pain. Your senior’s doctor may recommend antiviral drugs such as valacyclovir or acyclovir. Lidocaine, a topical local anesthetic, is often prescribed to treat shingles pain. Capsaicin is another option.
Here are a few tips you can follow as a caregiver to help prevent spreading the disease or to provide relief:
- Encourage your loved one(s) to get a one-time vaccination, and consider vaccinating yourself.
- Bring your loved one to a healthcare professional if any symptoms develop.
- Treat the virus as contagious. Shingles can only spread to those who have not had it, so those at risk should avoid contact with the blister fluid.
- Relieve pain with cool baths and compresses.
- Watch for signs of depression and encourage stress-reduction techniques.
The chances of developing shingles can also be reduced by keeping the immune system strong through a healthy diet and exercise.