Understanding the Shingles Virus
Written by J’Nel Wright
David Letterman had it. Actors Frank Langella and Roseanne Barr had it, too. Even rocker Billy Idol succumbed to it. Approximately one-third of Americans will develop shingles in their lifetime. But as common as shingles is among older adults, most people don’t recognize the symptoms, how to prevent it or understand the cause of this painful disease.
The prevalence of shingles is often due to the high number of older adults who had chickenpox as children. The varicella zoster virus (shingles) remains inactive in some nerve cells where it can potentially resurface as shingles. It is the same chickenpox virus becoming active again as shingles. Seniors are most likely to be affected.
“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.
Can you prevent getting shingles? If you do get shingles, how do you minimize effects of the disease?
Shingles itself is not contagious. You can’t spread the condition to another person. However, the varicella-zoster virus is contagious, and if you have shingles, you can spread the virus to another person, which could then cause them to develop chickenpox if they’ve never had it before. Much like the chickenpox rules that apply, while the rash is in the blisters phase – stay away.
A recent Consumer Reports article highlighted the effectiveness of a vaccine. “The most effective way to reduce your chances of getting this painful virus is to get a vaccine,” says Waldron; anyone older than 60 should see about getting vaccinated. However, those patients who have a weakened immune system, have undergone radiation or chemotherapy, or are taking steroids are not candidates for the vaccine. Although the vaccine doesn’t guarantee shingles won’t occur, it has been proven to reduce the risk of getting the disease by 51 percent.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control called attention to the new FDA-approved Shingrix vaccine, a two-shot vaccine that is proving to be more effective than the existing Zostavax vaccine. “According to the CDC, the Shingrix vaccine (whose two doses are to be given two to six months apart), offers 97 percent protection in people in their 50s and 60s and roughly 91 percent protection in those in their 70s and 80s,” says Consumer Reports writer Diane Umansky.
And this vaccine can be administered to patients in their 50s, whereas Zostavax was limited to those aged 60 and over. But as with the vaccine restrictions for those with a weakened immune system, doctors caution against this new vaccine as well. “Shingrix is not recommended for older adults who are immunocompromised or are taking moderate to high doses of drugs that suppress the immune system,” says Umansky.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for shingles once you have it. However, your doctor may prescribe medicine to help control the uncomfortable symptoms. Typically, the best remedies include rest, cold compresses, calamine lotion, colloidal oatmeal baths, and a little patience.
Be mindful of complications such as blisters forming near the eyes, bacterial skin infections, Ramsay Hunt syndrome, pneumonia, and brain or spinal-cord inflammation. Seek medical attention if unusual symptoms or complications appear.
Know the Symptoms
Shingles typically appears in one area of the body, often as localized pain with a blistering rash. The blistering appearance coupled with sores and redness are distinctive. It is described as incredibly painful and uncomfortable.
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 itching or painful skin. The symptoms may remain for a few weeks but typically improve after ten days.
Although not particularly well-known, shingles can strike at any time, especially in people over the age of 60. As the colder winter months settle in and more gatherings occur indoors, we can reduce the risk of getting shingles by getting a vaccine, avoiding people with chickenpox, and watching for early symptoms. Through simple acts of prevention, we can enjoy a happy and healthy winter season.
Illustration unknown. Photo by Quinte de Graaf (Netherlands) @quinten149
J'Nel Wright is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in topics concerning health and wellness, aging, caregiving, humor, travel and business. Her work has appeared in a variety of regional and national publications. Her educational background includes a bachelor's degree in English and Social Work. She has traveled throughout Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, French Polynesia, Mexico and much of the United States. She is a full time writer.