Shingles Facts for Adults over 50

Adults over 50 years of age are at greater risk of getting Shingles because their immune systems have aged and are less effective against diseases like Shingles. The CAUSE of shingles is the Varicella-Zoster (Herpes varicellae) virus, which is the virus that causes the common childhood disease of chickenpox. What happens is that after a child has had shingles, the virus remains in the nerve tissues in a dormant state. As the individual becomes older, with a weaker immune system, the virus can reappear in the form of shingles.

What is Shingles?

It is a painful rash. Very painful. It affects about one million Americans every year and anyone with a history of chickenpox and a weakened immune system can contract shingles. People who are taking certain medications or immunosuppressive drugs, undergoing chemotherapy, or suffering from cancer or severe infections are at higher risk. Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another under normal circumstances.

How bad are the Symptoms?

Generally shingles will produce a blistering rash on one side of the body or face. There is usually pain and a burning sensation along the nerve paths on which the virus is attaching. Since nerve paths form half-circles around the body they have a distinct pattern. The burning rash is usually accompanied by both enlarged lymph nodes and fever.

In most people the rash and associated pain reach their peak in three to five days and then the blisters break and become sores which will scab over. After two or three weeks the scabs will heal and the patient is back to a normal life.

However, in some people, the area of the rash will remain painful for many years. This condition is called postherpetic neuralgia and affects about 10% of the people who contract shingles. This lingering pain is very difficult to treat and can significantly lower the quality of life for the patient.

Another serious complication of shingles is when it is located on the face near the eyes or nose. It can cause damage to the eyes, or other organs in the body. So it is very important to obtain prompt medical treatment for shingles.

Is there a Vaccine for Shingles?

Yes. The vaccine is not perfect but it has shown the ability to reduce the risk of shingles and postherpetic neuraligia by 50% and 66% respectively. The shingles vaccine is recommended for people who have never had chickenpox because it is possible for a person to have forgotten the chickenpox episode or to have had a mild case that was not diagnosed. The vaccine is also recommended for people who have had shingles before because it is possible to get shingles a second time.