Since there are multitude of factors to take into account when considering future care for your loved ones, learning about preventative steps that can be taken now will go a long way towards ensuring better health later.
Shingles is a particular concern for most older adults as the virus is so overwhelmingly common among seniors in the US, and it can cause long-term complications
If you’re providing care for one or both of your elderly parents, you’re going to want to learning everything you can about what vaccinations are available and the various factors that can increase the risk of either contracting shingles or cause an outbreak.
It’s the kind of knowledge you need to make more informed care decisions in the future.
What Is Shingles?
Shingles (zoster, herpes zoster)— classified as part of a group of herpes viruses, the same that causes cold sores— is a commonly occurring virus that primarily affects older adults.
An estimated one million people develop shingles each year in the United States alone.
Caused by the same strain that causes chickenpox (varicella zoster), the virus can remain dormant for years once it enters the nervous system.
Why does chickenpox reappear in the form of shingles after so long?
To date, health experts have pinpointed no single, medically-proven reason for why the virus reappears as shingles after remaining dormant so long.
But as shingles is more common in older adults, general consensus is that it is related to the deterioration of immune system that comes with age or certain medical conditions.
Who Is At Risk?
Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles, though there are several factors that can increase the risk of development:
- Age: shingles is most common in adults over the age of 50, and the risk of developing shingles increases with age.
- Disease: any disease that can weaken the immune system— like HIV/AIDS and cancer— can increase the likelihood of developing shingles.
- Cancer Treatments: radiation therapy and chemotherapy can weaken your immune system and make the body more susceptible to viruses.
- Certain Medications: protracted use of steroids, like prednisone, or drugs intended to avert rejection of transplanted organs creates an increased risk of developing shingles.
Shingles is passed along through contact with the open sores of the rash associated with shingles and can be transmitted to anyone who is not already immune to chickenpox.
However, as shingles is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus, a newly infected individual develops chickenpox rather than shingles itself— which can be dangerous enough for certain groups of people like those with a weakened immune system, newborn infants, and women who are pregnant.
Perhaps due to the same weakening of the immune system that is thought to cause the dormant virus to reactivate, shingles tends to be more virulent than chickenpox.
In addition to a painful rash, shingles can also cause:
- skin infections
- neurological problems like encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
- facial paralysis
- hearing or balance problems
- vision loss
If your parents had chickenpox, there is no guarantee that they won't get shingles, but making sure that your parents have the proper vaccinations can go a long way towards preventing the virus from becoming a serious, or life threatening, condition.
There are currently two vaccines available than may help prevent shingles:
- The chickenpox (varicella) vaccine– these days, it's a routine childhood vaccination, but it is also recommended for adults who have never had chickenpox.
- The shingles (varicella-zoster) vaccine– for adults 50 years old and older who have had chickenpox.
While these vaccines do not guarantee that shingles will not develop, they can help reduce severity and the possibility of complications.
It’s impossible to plan for every medical problem that could happen. But when you’re planning ahead for the future care needs of your loved ones, it’s key that you make sure that you’re staying up-to-date on all possible health-related issues.
Speak to your loved ones now about their medical history so that you can make the best and most informed decisions when you need to.