A Healthy Age
Sixty-year-old M.D. Walters from near St. Louis, was baffled. Pain on one side of her head and ear caused her to lose sleep. A few days later, a rash appeared.
“It was like someone drew a straight line on my neck, and the rash ran on one side of the line,” she said. She knew about shingles, assuming that her chicken-pox free childhood liberated her from the disease. Walters thought she had pinched a nerve at the gym.
A visit to her medical provider affirmed the surprising diagnosis. When the nurse practitioner parted Walters’ hair and saw the rash on her head, she said, “You have shingles.”
Perhaps Walters had unknowingly been exposed to chicken pox from one of her three siblings in childhood. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). The virus stays inactive in nerve cells after a bout with or exposure to chicken pox. Ninety-five percent of the Americans have the chicken pox virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Nearly 1 million Americans get shingles (herpes zoster) every year. According to the National Institute on Aging, the disease packs a punch with fluid-filled blisters, sensitive skin, and mild itching to intense pain. Some unlucky people may experience hiccups, or worse, loss of vision if the virus gets in the eye. The CDC said the burning, blistering rash lasts two to four weeks, but PHN may cause pain for months. NIA notes that “something between one and five days after the tingling or burning feeling on the skin, a red rash will appear.”
The risk is higher for seniors, for shingles and it’s unwelcome relative, post herpetic neuralgia or PHN. Researchers, according to the National Council on Aging, have reported that our immune systems may be “awakened” by our aging bodies, triggering a dormant chicken pox virus.
For Walters, her medical provider affirmed her quick trip to the doctor enabled rapid treatment. She received a steroid shot as well as an antiviral drug, a steroid dose-pack, and two pain pills.
Walter’s disease process mimicked the typical patient. “The rash got ‘lumpier,’ and formed white blisters, then the blisters dried up, formed scabs, and sloughed off,” she said.
Fortunately, she did not experience any long-term effects, such as PHN. NIA reports that PHN may be the worst part of shingles for some patients with severe pain in the area where the rash erupted.
The area where shingles scab may become infected or develop a scar. NIA recommends
keeping the rash areas clean and using antibiotic cream.
How can you prevent getting shingles? Shingles are not contagious, but the chicken pox virus is. If you have shingles, you can infect someone with the chicken pox virus.
Since 2006, the FDA has approved several shingles vaccines, and the CDC recommends adults over age 60 get the shot. Shots are available through pharmacies and provider’s offices
Am I Covered? (CDC data sheet)
- Medicare: Part D covers the vaccine, with a possible cost to you, depending on plan.
- Medicaid: Dependent upon plan.
- Private health insurance: Most plans cover for ages 60 and up. Co-pay is dependent on your plan.
- For vaccine assistance programs: http://www.merck.com/merckhelps/vaccines/home
Who Can Get a Vaccine?
- Shingles can re-occur. The CDC doesn’t prescribe any length of time between an outbreak and getting the vaccine, but recommends the rash be cleared up.
- If you have not had the shingles, there’s no time like the present. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the CDC on vaccine usage, recommended in October 2017 that all Americans 50 and older should be vaccinated with Shingrix, including those who already received the Zostavax shot (which has been on the market since 2006.)
No serious problems have been reported with the vaccine, though some patients said redness or burning the injection site and some reported headaches.
Individuals with moderate or severe chronic illness, those with severe allergies, or those with weakened immune systems should not get the shingles shot.
For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control website at www.cdc.gov.
Amy McVay Abbott is a retired healthcare executive who writes about health care for Senior Wire News Service. She also writes humorous pieces and is featured as one of 40 humorists in the first Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop anthology in 2018.