The varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is particularly pernicious, posing the highest risk to individuals at the earliest and later stages of their lives. When contracted by children, this virus causes the common ailment chickenpox. After this itchy illness subsides, however, the virus often remains in one’s body, lying dormant for decades. If reactivated, VZV can wreak even more havoc on the skin and body in the form of shingles (herpes zoster). This disease (which affects about 20% of the population harboring the varicella-zoster virus) can cause itchy blisters across various areas of the body, leading to severe discomfort and pain.
Those who develop shingles earlier in life tend to avoid the harshest shingles symptoms and complications (though even young adults can get hit hard by this disease). However, people over 60 years of age are at the greatest risk of developing shingles, making up approximately half of all cases. For this more mature demographic, a shingles rash can become much more than a nuisance, leading to severe, sometimes life-threatening complications due to a weaker immune system. Let’s go over what shingles can do to mature generations.
Diseases like shingles that cause blisters and open sores increase one’s risk of contracting a secondary infection. Those experiencing shingles symptoms must do their best to not scratch or pick at sores so they remain sealed. Of course, this hands-off policy is easier said than done considering how uncomfortable these sores can be. Receiving a proper shingles treatment from a dermatologist can help alleviate pain and discomfort so the skin remains protected from bacteria and other contaminants.
Because shingles can quickly spread to different parts of the body, it can affect one’s eyes and ears to various degrees. If the outbreak attacks the nerves near one’s ears, it can cause Ramsay Hunt syndrome (herpes zoster oticus), which is not only painful but can also paralyze portions of the face and lead to long-term hearing loss. Likewise, shingles can reach eye nerves (ophthalmic herpes zoster), which can cause partial or total vision loss in the affected area as well as scarring. Mature individuals with shingles are at greater risk of these complications.
The worst cases of shingles can affect the brain as well. Encephalitis refers to inflammation of the brain, which can be triggered by a bacterial infection, immune system disorder, or virus such as varicella zoster. If the inflammation is severe, it can be life-threatening and requires immediate treatment -- early signs include hallucinations, seizures, loss of sensation, confusion, and overall weakness.
Shingles can also inflame the spinal cord, namely the insulating material known as myelin. This condition is known as transverse myelitis and can block nerve signals throughout the body, potentially causing paralysis, pain, sensory malfunctions, muscle weakness, and other serious issues.
Mature generations affected by shingles may also suffer from a complication called peripheral motor neuropathy as a result of nerve damage. Those with peripheral motor neuropathy may experience weakness, numbness, and pain (often in the hands and feet). While various treatments can alleviate these symptoms, it’s crucial to treat the underlying condition as well (shingles, in this case, though diabetes, injury, and other infections can cause this as well).
Lastly, the most common shingles complication (especially in older individuals) is postherpetic neuralgia, a condition which affects nerve fibers and one’s skin, creating a burning sensation that lingers after the visible signs of shingles (i.e. rash, blisters) go away. This pain and discomfort can last three months or longer following the disappearance of rashes and blisters. Those over the age of 60 who experience shingles are at the greatest risk of this complication. While there is currently no cure for postherpetic neuralgia, the associated pain can be treated in various ways. Experts also recommend that adults who are 50 years of age or older receive a shingles vaccine such as Shingrix or Zostavax, as these are highly effective at preventing shingles and the most severe complications such as this one.
Shingles can affect individuals of all ages if they’ve already had chickenpox, but this disease tends to have the most devastating effects on those over the age of 60. Fortunately, vaccination and proper treatment can help protect those most vulnerable to this cruel yet common condition. The experts at Premier Dermatology Partners can arm you with the information and resources you need to keep your skin shingles-free.
To learn more about our providers and all the services we offer, contact us today.