Getting chickenpox was once a rite of passage as a child. An estimated 99 percent of adults over age 40 in the United States have had chickenpox at some point in their life. Getting chickenpox as a child is safer than as an adult, but it also means most of the adult population is at risk for shingles. Seniors have an elevated risk of getting shingles, but there is a vaccine to help prevent it. From risk factors to treatment options and vaccines, here are six things you should know about the disease.
What is shingles?
Shingles is a disease affecting the nerves that is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus. If a person has had chickenpox as a child, the virus continues to live in some nerve cells and is usually inactive. Most adults have the virus in their bodies, and approximately one-third will develop shingles. It is not associated with another illness but is rather the same chickenpox virus becoming active again.
What are the symptoms?
Shingles typically appears on only one side of the body, often as a band around the belly. Symptoms of shingles include burning, tingling or numbness. A person may also experience chills, fever, upset stomach or a headache. Fluid-filled blisters that burst and scab over may appear, along with sensitive skin and itching or painful skin. The symptoms may remain for a few weeks but should begin to get better after about 10 days.
Who is at risk?
Anybody who had chickenpox is at risk for getting shingles. “There is no doubt that shingles is a concern for older adults,” says Cindy Waldron, RN, administrator at Coronado Healthcare Center. “It is most common in adults between the ages of 60 and 80 years old.” People with a weakened immune system have an elevated risk for shingles. “The most effective way to reduce your chances of getting this painful virus is to get a vaccine,” says Waldron. However, those patients who have a weakened immune system, have undergone radiation or chemotherapy, or are taking steroids are not candidates for the vaccine.
Is it contagious?
The shingles virus is contagious, but it does not cause shingles in other people. Someone who has not had chickenpox can catch chickenpox from a person with shingles. Until the shingles blisters have scabbed over, people with shingles should avoid physical contact with people who have not had chickenpox and people with a weakened immune system.
What should I do if I get shingles?
Visit your doctor if you show signs of shingles, especially if you are older than 60. Medications will not cure shingles, but they can help with the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness.
Rest, cold compresses, calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths can also help relieve symptoms. Shingles can have serious complications, including eye damage if blisters are near the eyes, bacterial skin infections, Ramsay Hunt syndrome, pneumonia, and brain or spinal cord inflammation. Seek medical attention if symptoms of potential complications appear.
Who needs a vaccine?
Anyone older than 60 should get the shingles vaccine. It is still possible to get shingles, but the vaccine reduces the risk of getting the disease by 51 percent. The vaccine is still recommended if a person has not had chickenpox or if a person has had shingles. The vaccine can help prevent a reoccurrence of the disease.
It is not recommended for people who have had a severe allergic reaction to components of the vaccine, people with a weakened immune system or women who are or could be pregnant.
Shingles is a common disease that can strike at any time, especially after age 60. Chickenpox wasn’t any fun as a kid, and shingles is even less fun as an adult. Arming yourself with the vaccine is the best way to try and prevent the disease.
This article was originally published by the Daily Herald.