There’s a life-altering infection out there that’s plaguing people 65 and older, but it’s not the novel coronavirus.
It’s shingles, which is recognizable by a painful rash and blisters that scab and pus. While it looks like a skin rash to the naked eye, it’s actually an infection to the nerve tissue buried beneath the skin, initiated by the same virus that causes the scourge of most children — chickenpox.
“(It’s) not a fun thing,” said Neosho resident Karol Meyers, who suffered through a round of shingles recently. “(I’m) hoping I don’t ever get it again.”
Shingles should never be taken lightly or brushed aside, said Dr. Henry Petry, geriatrician with Freeman Center for Geriatric Medicine.
“Almost all of the people who get it have had chickenpox in their lifetime,” he said. “The older you are, the more likely you are to get it. Recent (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) studies state that 1 out of 3 people probably the age of … 65 or above are probably going to get it.”
When shingles first breaks out, “it is very painful,” Petry said. The rash — mostly centered on the chest or abdomen, but it can also appear on the head or face a few days following the onset of pain — “can blister, and it’s usually linear, meaning it goes from the back (of the body or head) to the front.”
During that time, people will feel varying degrees of pain, which can flare up anywhere on the body where there are nerves. When shingles “gets back (in the nerves) it’s like an infection in that area, and it kind of inactivates it and makes it do funny things it’s not supposed to do,” he said.
When treated, an episode can last between seven and 10 days. If untreated, “there’s the possibility of developing a type of neuropathy,” which is damage or dysfunction of one or more nerves that result in sporadic pain, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness for years on end, Petry said.
“I’ve had a couple of (patients) who had it, but they didn’t get (shingles) around the chest but down their leg, and they developed permanent foot drop from the changes to the sciatic nerve,” he said. Petry also said that should the rash appear on the face and blisters form in the eye, it can cause blindness.
These long-term complications of pain and dysfunction “can be very devastating to the quality of life of that person if it’s not treated,” he said. “The older you are, the more likely you’ll have a problem with it.”
While it’s impossible for two people who previously had chickenpox to pass shingles to one another, it is possible for someone with shingles to pass it to someone who has never previously had chickenpox, he said.
To that end, CDC officials have noticed a slight increase in shingles cases over the past 24 months, most likely due to stresses brought on by COVID-19.
“Stress is a big immune system depressant,” Petry said. “Any time that you have a change in your immune system … that suppresses it, it’s down; I don’t mean depressed, but you’re down” physically. Major stresses, and some back-to-back-to-back stressors lasting for years, “can make your immune system more susceptible to everything, even to the common cold.”
There are ways to lessen the risks from shingles. There are three different types of antiviral drugs that work effectively to rid the body of the infection; steroids also help to reduce some of the post-shingles neuropathy symptoms.
But the best and safest way to protect oneself from shingles is to get immunized against it. CDC officials recommend that healthy adults 50 and older get the two-dose vaccine Shingrix. The vaccine, which two years ago replaced a single-dose vaccine, is more than 90% effective at preventing shingles.
Vaccination against shingles “is the one thing that we really, really recommend as you get older … in order to prevent the spread of it so it can’t be a life-altering infection,” Petry said.