Shingles: A Common Health Concern for Seniors

When watching TV, you may recall seeing commercials advertising shingles medications or vaccinations for seniors. Also known as zoster, it’s a common disease that affects seniors. Symptoms of the disease can range from mild to severe, but for seniors, it’s a risk they should try to minimize.

What Is Shingles?

Shingles is a viral disease associated with the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus¬†(VZV) — or chickenpox — in an infected person. It typically manifests as fluid-filled blisters that run wrap around one side of the body. In most people, the blisters will dry up and heal within one month. Some people experience longer-lasting systems, however, such as chronic nerve pain or malaise.

It’s important to note that shingles isn’t caused by exposure to a new virus. Rather, it’s caused by the reactivation of an existing virus in a person’s body. Over 99% of the U.S. population has been infected with the chickenpox virus. Like with many other viruses, the chickenpox virus doesn’t go away entirely. Even after symptoms have subsided, it will remain dormant in a person’s body. Shingles involves the reactivation of the chickenpox virus, meaning it essentially emerges out of its once-dormant state.

How Common Is Shingles in Seniors?

While anyone can develop shingles at any age, seniors have the greatest risk. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three seniors will develop shingles in their lifetime. The CDC also says that over half of seniors don’t fully understand the dangers associated with this disease.

Seniors have the greatest risk of developing shingles because of their weakened immune systems. As we age, our bodies become less effective at warding off viruses. A senior’s immune system may have previously kept the chickenpox virus in check, but as he or she ages, the virus may overpower the senior’s immune system.

The Dangers of Shingles in Seniors

When a senior develops shingle, his or her immune system — which is already in a weakened state due to age — will have to focus on fighting off the reactivated chickenpox virus. Therefore, the senior will be vulnerable to secondary infections. It’s not uncommon for seniors to develop bacterial or fungal skin infections, for instance, during a bout of shingles.

Of course, shingles can cause severe pain in all people, including seniors. This is because the chickenpox virus stays inside the nerves. As it multiplies, it damages the nerves in which it resides, resulting in sharp nerve pain.

Some studies have also shown a link between shingles and stroke. Researchers have found that seniors who suffer from shingles are more likely to have a stroke than their counterparts. To put the dangers of shingles into perspective, the CDC says over one in three seniors who develop this disease will experience serious complications.

What Seniors Can Do to Lower Their Risk of Shingles

There are ways for seniors to lower their risk of shingles, one of which is vaccination. Vaccination works by exposing a senior to a weakened or inactivated sample of the chickenpox virus, thereby allowing his or her immune system to develop antibodies for it. The CDC recommends that healthy seniors get vaccinated for shingles twice a year to lower their risk of developing this painful disease.

Shingrex is a common vaccine used to protect against shingles as well as the disease’s associated complications. According to the CDC, it has a 90% success rate at preventing shingles when administered twice a year. Another common vaccine used to protect against shingles is Zostavax. While Zostavax isn’t quite as effective as Shingrex, it may used in seniors who are allergic or don’t respond to Shingrex.

Seniors should also consider making the appropriate lifestyle changes to strengthen their immune system. Nearly everyone has the chickenpox virus living inside their body. The immune system works to keep the virus in check so that it doesn’t replicate and manifest as shingles. If a senior’s immune system weakens, the chickenpox virus may use this opportunity to spread.

Eating a healthy diet, not surprisingly, can strengthen a senior’s immune system. Seniors should include lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains in their diet while reducing their intake of processed foods.

Spending time outdoors, particularly on sunny days, can also strengthen a senior’s immune system. Sunlight is a catalyst for vitamin D. When seniors are exposed to sunlight, they’ll develop more vitamin D, which can be effective at fighting off viruses like the dormant chickenpox virus.

In Conclusion

Shingles is a common viral disease in seniors that involves the reactivation of the chickenpox virus. When a senior’s immune system is unable to fend off the chickenpox virus, he or she may develop fluid-filled blisters that are synonymous with shingles. With vaccination and lifestyle changes, however, seniors can lower their risk of developing shingles.

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