How to Know if Someone Has Shingles

Jun 21, 2016

How to Know if Someone Has Shingles

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It’s often thought that if someone contracts chickenpox once, then they’ll never have to deal with the likes of those itchy, red bumps and fever again. While this is not completely false, the varicella-zoster virus responsible for chickenpox can be reactivated as a disease known as shingles.

How to Identify the Shingles Virus

The virus that causes shingles is technically a form of herpes, so it has the ability to hibernate indefinitely within the body’s nerves without displaying any symptoms.

For seniors with suppressed immune systems, a history of an organ transplant, or other diseases such as HIV, shingles can be a particularly dangerous condition.

Someone May Have Shingles if:

  • A tingling sensation or burning pain is felt on one side of the body, likely the torso, neck, or face. This is often accompanied by headaches, fevers, or a fatigued achiness.
  • Raised, reddish and bumpy rashes start to appear, often on the same side of the body or face where the initial pain was felt.
  • After a few days, the rash develops into fluid-filled blisters resembling chickenpox that ooze and eventually crust over.

Overview of Shingles

Although it is common for shingles to develop around the torso or the waist, the disease can also affect areas like the head, neck, or back. These locations are very obvious in their display of the disease, while other affected areas can be concealed.

If you come into contact with someone with shingles, be aware that their oozing blisters can transfer the disease if you have never contracted the varicella-zoster virus before. It is not until these sores have developed scabs that they are less likely to infect others. Becoming infected by someone with shingles will result in chickenpox.

According to the National Institutes of Health, it is estimated that half of the American population will have experienced shingles by 80 years of age. These figures illustrate the importance of recognizing and addressing shingles in our aging population. Yet despite the distinct risk in the elderly, anyone can contract shingles at any age depending on whether or not they have already encountered the varicella-zoster virus.

People with contagious shingles must take extra precautions not to expose themselves to pregnant women. The varicella-zoster virus has been shown to cause serious risks like pneumonia and birth defects if left untreated. Even if the sore and blisters have mostly healed over, there is still a risk that newborns or anyone else with a weak immune system might contract the disease.

Keeping the affected areas of skin clean and covered can help prevent the virus from spreading. Carefully washing your hands after handling any contaminated wraps, bandages, or clothing is also very important.

Varying Pain and Discomfort

Shingles can cause mild to severe pain, lasting anywhere from a few days or weeks to a year or more in rare cases. Most of the discomfort is experienced during the onset of the symptoms, and the expression of the disease as blisters and oozing sores.

Any pain persisting after the blisters have released their fluids, crusted over, and mostly healed may indicate postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). This condition is thought to be mainly a result of nerve damage caused by herpes zoster as it develops beneath the skin. The pain of PHN can vary from mild discomfort to a chronic burning, stabbing, or aching sensation. Many sufferers also report either hypersensitivity or a decreased reaction to touch.

According to the National Institutes of Health, PHN as a result of shingles affects 10 percent of people over 60, and nearly 20 percent of 80-year-olds and up.

Because it is difficult to find a reliable method of relieving the pain of PHN, effective therapy usually requires multiple drugs. Anticonvulsants and tricyclic antidepressants have been shown to lessen the pain of PHN where over-the-counter painkillers fail. Other drugs such as opioids may be prescribed for intense and prolonged pain, however, these substances are not without their risks.

Other treatments include topical anesthetics, TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), and surgical nerve blocks in the most extreme cases.

Preventative Medicine

Luckily, there are ways to lessen your risk of getting shingles, if not preventing them entirely.

A safe and effective vaccine is available to keep the virus from reactivation when your immune system may be weak. This vaccine also reduces the risk of experiencing severe pain from PHN if shingles do appear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highly recommend that all adults 60 years of age and older receive the vaccine for the sake of denying the spread of this disease.  

By learning the symptoms and risks associated with shingles, you or your elderly loved one can better understand and address this disease to best preserve health and happiness.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is shingles life threatening?

Generally speaking, no, shingles is not life threatening. However, for persons with especially weakened immune systems shingles can cause complications which can then become life threatening. If you have shingles, it is important to speak with your doctor immediately so that they can ensure that your overall health is not in danger.

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Does Medicare cover the cost of the shingles vaccine?

Yes and no, it depends on which Medicare plan you are on. However, most of the Medicare plans cover all or part of the shingles vaccine. We recommend taking a look at your plan and then asking your doctor if you are covered. Receiving the shingles vaccine is a very important decision to make for seniors and can cut the risk of getting the disease nearly in half. 

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