I remember when I first overheard a couple of guys talking about shingles. Of course once I got beyond the fact that they weren’t talking about shingles for your house, then my reaction was to think that they must be talking about some old person disease or condition that couldn’t possibly be relevant to me. You know… like gout.
What is shingles anyway? And, should we be concerned about it as we get older?
Shingles is a viral infection that is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you’ve had chickenpox before (and most older adults have because they hadn’t yet started widespread vaccinating for it), the virus may still remain, dormant in your nerve tissues and could reemerge as shingles. Symptoms include:
- Pain, burning, or tingling
- Sensitive to the touch
- A red rash that appears a couple of days after the pain (oddly, it’s usually on one side of the body)
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over (you are contagious until these crust over)
- Possible fever
Now, not everyone that has had chickenpox will get shingles, although some speculate that 50% of those over 80 years old will get them. To date, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive reason for this reemergence. One thought is that it can be caused by a compromised immune system, which can happen as we age, (see, we are more likely to get it when we’re older), or with certain diseases, or medications.
According to the Mayo Clinic, you should see a doctor if you suspect you have shingles and especially when:
- The pain and rash occur near an eye. If left untreated, this infection can lead to permanent eye damage.
- You’re 60 or older, because age significantly increases your risk of complications.
- You or someone in your family has a weakened immune system (due to cancer, medications or chronic illness).
- The rash is widespread and painful.
So, all that said… not fun. There are vaccines for it, though. Two different kinds, in fact. While these vaccines have been found to be consistently safe (minor possible side effects), they also don’t guarantee that you won’t get shingles.
Should we worry about shingles? No, but if it sets your mind at ease, a vaccine is an option. Otherwise, just stay as strong and healthy as you can.