What Causes Shingles in the Elderly

What Causes Shingles in the Elderly? What You Should Know

Shingle is a viral ailment that leads to a painful skin rash. While shingles can appear anywhere on your body, it commonly occurs as a single band of blisters that sheathes around either the right or the left side of your face or torso. Its symptoms, including tingling sensation and burning pain, can last for a few weeks or longer.

But unfortunately, shingles pose some further dangers among the elderly, including a higher risk of stroke and other severe health complications. Luckily, shingles can be generally prevented with the Shingrix vaccine or treated with medications.

However, the key to effective treatment for the elderly who develop shingles is a prompt response to the initial sign of symptoms. That includes a medical assessment followed by immediate treatment with antiviral medications and pain management therapies.

So, what causes shingles in the elderly, shingles complications, its treatment, and who should get vaccinated. Let’s find out!

What Causes Shingles in the Elderly?

Shingles are caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes varicella, commonly known as chickenpox. If you have had chickenpox at a younger age, the virus remains inactive in nerve tissue near your brain or spinal cord. As you grow old, the virus may reactivate, resulting in shingles.

Although the reason for shingles is unclear, it can be due to weakened immunity as you grow older. The common symptoms for shingles include:

  • A painful rash
  • Headaches, fever, and nausea
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Tingling or burning sensation on the skin in one part of the body

A shingles rash often appears as a stripe on one side of the body, usually the face or torso, a useful hint when diagnosing the condition. You may experience pain some days before any skin irritation or blisters can occur and persist after the rash has cleared.

Shingles symptoms, especially pain and rash, are more distressing among the elderly than younger people. If not treated early, the pain may become chronic for older adults.

Shingles Complications in the Elderly

Shingles infection usually resolves within a few weeks and has minimal risk of enduring problems for younger people. However, this is different for most elderly, who may face dangerous complications, even after the rash itself has scabbed over.

Here are several most common complications that affect older adults:

  • Vision loss: Ophthalmic shingles, an infection in or around an eye, may cause painful eye infections that lead to vision loss. Early treatment is vital if shingles develop near an eye.
  • Postherpetic neuralgia: For some individuals, shingles pain endures long after the blisters have scabbed over. This condition is known as postherpetic neuralgia. It occurs when damaged nerve tissues send severe pain messages from your skin to the brain.
  • Skin infections: Bacterial skin infections can occur if blisters are not appropriately treated.
  • Dementia: The vascular damage that affects blood flow to the brain and leads to stroke can also disrupt brain function in various ways. Shingles increase the odd of inflammation of the arteries supplying blood to the brain, which raises the chances for dementia.

Although shingles is not usually a dangerous disease, it can result in conditions such as encephalitis and pneumonia, which can be life-threatening. This commonly occurs in older adults whose immune systems have been compromised by AIDS and cancer treatments.

Also refer: Why do seniors stop talking

Vaccines and Treatment

The only way to minimize the risk of developing shingles and its most common complication, postherpetic neuralgia, is to get vaccinated. Shingrix is the recommended shingles vaccine for healthy adults 50 years and above.

The dose is administered in two doses to prevent shingles and complications from the disease, and it’s usually administered as a shot in your upper arm.

Also read: sudden extreme tiredness in elderly

Who Should Get Shingrix?

Health adults 50 years and above should receive two shots of Shingrix, between 2 to 6 months. You can get the shot even if you have had shingles in the past, gotten Zostavax, or are not sure whether you ever had chickenpox. You can get the Shingrix vaccine from your doctor’s office or pharmaceutical stores.

Getting the Shingrix vaccine has no maximum age.

Getting Shingrix can help you prevent the future occurrence of shingles if you have had the disease before. You need to wait for no specific time frame after getting shingles before receiving Shingrix. However, it is crucial to ensure the shingles rash has cleared before getting vaccinated.

FAQs- What Causes Shingles in the Elderly

Are Shingles Infections Contagious?

Shingles infection is not contagious. However, a person with active shingles can spread the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who is not immune to chickenpox. This often occurs through direct contact when the rash is in the blister stage. But once infected, the person will develop chickenpox, not shingles.

Chickenpox can be life-threatening for some people. So, until your shingles blisters have cleared, you are contagious and should avoid physical contact with anyone who hasn’t received the chickenpox vaccine. Keep away from people with lowered immune systems, such as the elderly, newborns, and pregnant women. 

Is Shingles Life-threatening for Elderly People?

The risks of acquiring shingles and experiencing complications from the virus increase as you grow older. Complications from shingles can be life-threatening and may lead to long-term health conditions, such as nerve pain, also known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).

Also, shingles is particularly serious for aging adults with a weakened immune system, making it more difficult to fight the infection.

Can an Elderly Person Die from Shingles?

If left untreated for long, shingles can result in dangerous complications that can cause death. According to Centre Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, shingles kills approximately 100 people every year. Bacterial infections can be dangerous, causing shock or sepsis in your body.

Does Medicare Pay for the Shingles Vaccine?

Part A and B don’t cover the shingles shot. However, Part D will cover the shingles shot and any commercially available vaccine. Medicare Supplement programs will help close the gaps in coverage while under your doctor’s care.

Although shingles can affect anyone at any age, it’s considerably common among the elderly. The virus can also lead to more serious symptoms and complications for aging adults.

Getting diagnosed and beginning treatment as early as possible can help avoid complications, such as long-term nerve pain. And if your elderly hasn’t received shingles vaccine, ask a healthcare provider whether they can get it.

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