Shingles: What Seniors Should Know

Shingles is a common infection that is directly caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes Chicken Pox. Anyone who has ever been exposed to, or who has had the Chicken Pox has the varicella-zoster virus lying dormant in their bodies. At any time, this virus can reactivate, and cause Shingles to occur. This common disease can cause severe pain and a rash to occur over the body. It is highly contagious, and is the most common in patients over the age of 50. If you or someone you love is above the age of 50, then keep reading to find out the risk factors, causes, symptoms, treatment options and complications of shingles.

Risk Factors

If you have been infected with the varicella-zoster virus before, then the shingles virus is lying dormant inside of you right now. Almost everyone has contracted chickenpox in their lifetime, and all of these people now have the ability to get shingles. As a result, almost everyone is at risk for developing shingles. Even though the virus that causes shingles is known as the varicella-zoster virus, once shingles occurs in vitro the virus is known as herpes zoster. Varicella-zoster can reactivate at any time and cause shingles, but as people age, their chance of reactivation of the virus increases. Each person who has been infected by the varicella-zoster virus will develop a cell-mediated immunity against the virus. As people age, this immunity is weakened and the virus has the ability to reactivate and morph into the herpes zoster virus. In turn, older people portray a much higher risk of developing shingles.

Besides age, another major risk factor for developing shingles is having a compromised immune system. People who have had cancer in the past, who are taking immunosuppressant, or who have poor diets will all have weakened immune systems and could develop shingles.


Shingles lives in various nerves throughout your body. For this reason, when an occurrence of shingles happens it will cause severe pain. Symptoms will be localized to the affected nerve, and often a rash will spread on the surface of the skin above the nerve ending. The most common areas that are affected are the chest, abdomen and upper face. People who experience shingles will feel pain that is localized in a band around their body. If a nerve in their abdomen is affected, then their pain will be localized to their stomach, sides and back. Rashes will typically occur around 3 days after the onset of pain. The rashes will be red and splotchy, and could appear similar to chickenpox. People often complain of blisters and swollen, red skin that can itch and also produce pain. As the blisters and rash dries up, they will turn into scabs and then slowly fade. Depending on the severity of the patient’s rash, scarring could occur.

The two main symptoms of shingles are pain and rash. People will begin feeling pain in the nerve that is affected and then their pain will quickly escalate to form a band of localized pain around their body. Days later a rash will occur, which will blister, itch and cause even more pain. This entire episode of pain and rash can last anywhere from 2-4 weeks. In seniors, the rash may last longer due to weaker immune system.


Affective treatment for shingles starts early. By diagnosing shingles early and getting proper treatment, you can cut down the time that you have shingles and be in far less pain. Initially, doctors can prescribe you antiviral medications and topical antibiotics for your rash. If the disease continues to progress even while taking medicine, then corticosteroids may be necessary to wipe the virus out of your system. Patients may also be prescribed pain medicine in order to combat any nerve pain from the disease.  Ongoing treatment may also be necessary for people with severe cases of the disease. If the pain is ongoing for more than a month, then you could be experiencing secondary sequelae or complications from shingles and could need more medications.


Here is a list of the most common complications that occur from shingles:

  • Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is the most common complication of shingles. It occurs in patients who still have pain even after their rash has disappeared. The problem is very common in elderly people who develop shingles. To treat it, doctors may prescribe stronger topical medications and antidepressants.
  • Weakness can occur in the affected nerve and around the affected area after shingles has cleared up. If a motor nerve was affected, then you may feel weakness in the muscle that it innervates. Light exercise can help combat weakness.
  • Eye problems can arise if shingles affects your upper face and eyes. Shingles can cause inflammation to settle in your eyes and in the nerves around your eye. This inflammation could cause blindness if left untreated. To treat it, doctors can prescribe anti-inflammatory eye drops or steroids.

Shingles is a serious condition that can occur in anyone who has ever been infected with chickenpox. The virus will sit dormant in your nerves until one day it is reactivated. There are numerous risk factors for the reactivation of the virus, but old age is the most common risk factor. If you or someone you know is over the age of 50, then the risk of developing shingles will increase dramatically. To combat your risk, talk to your doctor about the shingles vaccine. Most doctors will recommend the vaccine to their older patients to keep their risk for the disease low. If you do begin showing symptoms of shingles, then go to your doctor immediately. The earlier the virus is diagnosed, the less pain you will be in and the less severe your rash will be. If you do develop the virus, then follow your doctor’s instructions, and rest until the rash and pain is completely gone. Within a few weeks, you should recover and be back to normal.