Shingles is a common skin condition that can greatly impact the lives of older people. Learn what shingles is and how it may affect you in your later years.
Shingles is a painful, often misunderstood skin condition that largely affects people over the age of 50 years. The medical term for shingles is herpes zoster, though it’s not caused by the sexually transmitted infection herpes virus. Though both are contagious and can cause irritation on the skin, they are not caused or transmitted by the exact same things. Interestingly, a person can only develop shingles if they had chickenpox at some point in their lives. The herpes virus that causes chickenpox never truly leaves a person’s body, though it can lie dormant for decades or never show up again. Shingles is transmissible by touch, and it’s fairly contagious in that regard. If a person who’s never had chickenpox is exposed to shingles, they will develop chickenpox.
The symptoms of shingles often come on quickly, and there aren’t really triggers for the disease. In some cases, before anything is visible, a person may notice pain or tingling on a patch of their skin. Within a few days, people will notice a blistering rash that appears on the skin. The shingles rash can appear anywhere, though it most commonly crops up on the torso. Shingles can show up in more than one location at the same time, but it does not spread on the surface of the skin like a poison ivy rash does. The primary symptoms of the rash are extreme discomfort and pain, as well as itching and burning. Shingles affect everyone differently, but it’s generally very painful. Some people may develop a fever, headaches, or fatigue alongside the appearance of a shingles blister.
Shingles differs from chickenpox in many ways beyond who it impacts. While chickenpox is most often associated with children, shingles is thought of as a disease for the older generations. Shingles moves fast, and can show up at any time in a person’s life, though the odds are far, far higher for people over 50. The pain from shingles can be debilitating, and if untreated these painful symptoms can linger in the nerves for an extended period of time. If you’re able to treat your shingles within the first three days of the appearance of symptoms, you’re much more likely to avoid developing these chronic symptoms. This disease, called PHN or postherpetic neuralgia, can last months or years. The pain from PHN is usually more extreme than shingles and can be so severe that some are restricted to bed rest. Pain management treatment is available for treating shingles in the elderly, but it’s best to avoid the possibility of PHN altogether. Shingles can interfere with other parts of your life in rarer circumstances. Shingles on the face may cause blindness if it appears near the eyes and is left untreated. Similarly, it can cause deafness if the blisters develop on the ears. It’s rare, but shingles can result in death among people with weakened immune systems.
The best way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated. Starting at age 50, your dermatologist will strongly encourage you to get the shingles vaccine. The drug, called Shingrix, can reduce your chances of developing shingles by about 50%. This is a significant reduction of odds for developing a painful condition, and even if you do get shingles, a vaccinated person generally experiences milder symptoms. If you already have shingles, a vaccine won’t be much help for your current symptoms. Your doctor may recommend over-the-counter painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs for mild symptoms. Antiviral medications are administered for shingles, and if they’re given early enough, they can drastically lower the odds of developing PHN. Regardless of how long you’ve had symptoms, treatment with your dermatologist's help should be your first concern.
Shingles can be painful and last far longer than the visible blisters linger. If you’re looking to treat or prevent shingles, contact the experts at Northeast Dermatology Associates for excellent advice and assistance.
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