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Complications and Side Effects of Shingles in the Elderly

While many people know that shingles are related to the chickenpox virus, they’re often unaware of the complications of shingles in the elderly.  A rash that develops on one side of the body or face can be quite painful. Shingles typically appear as blisters that begin scabbing over within about one week and clear up within two to four weeks.

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Most people who develop shingles experience a rash that develops in a stripe on the right or left side of the body. In rare cases, the shingles rash may appear more similar to chickenpox and be more widespread. This is usually more common in individuals with weakened immune systems.

Complications of Shingles in the Elderly

Shingles are more common than many people think. Half of all people will have developed shingles by the time they reach age 80.

Although shingles can develop at any age, it tends to occur most frequently in people between the ages of 60 and 80. By age 60, one in three people will have had shingles. For this reason, shingles are linked to a rising threat among seniors.

What Causes Shingles?

Shingles is the result of the chickenpox virus becoming reactivated. What makes it different from regular chickenpox is that shingles generally only affect one side of the body. Shingles usually develop in three distinct phases.

3 Stages of Shingles:

  1. Severe tingling or pain
  2. Itchy rash
  3. The eruption of blisters that appear similar to chickenpox

The herpesvirus is responsible for shingles. Once an individual has become infected with this type of virus, the virus remains for life.

Most people never even know they have it because the virus remains inactive until the person’s immunity is weakened.

Pain Associated with Shingles

The most common complication related to shingles is pain. This is a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia or PHN. Individuals with this complication experience severe pain in the areas where the shingles rash developed.

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This pain may continue even after the rash has disappeared. Most patients with shingles find the pain subsides within a few weeks or months, but in other cases, the pain may last for years. In individuals over the age of 60, persistent pain is the most common symptom related to shingles.

Approximately one in six individuals over the age of 60 who develop shingles will experience severe pain. As individuals grow older, the chances they will develop long-term pain associated with shingles increases.

Shingles Complications in the Elderly

  • Bacterial infections that can result in scarring
  • Hearing problems
  • Vision problems
  • Toxic shock syndrome due to bacterial infection
  • Narcotizing fasciitis, an infection that destroys the soft tissue
  • Loss of sleep
  • Depression
  • Pneumonia
  • Brain inflammation (encephalitis)

Shingles Rarely Return

In most cases, people who get shingles only experience one episode during their entire lifetime. In some rare instances, an individual can develop shingles more than once.

Individuals who are at least 60 years of age should speak to their physician about getting the shingles vaccine. This vaccine can reduce the risk of developing shingles and the complications associated with it. Even if you have already had shingles, you can still receive the vaccine.

Passing Shingles to Others

It’s important to note that while shingles are not contagious and cannot be passed from one person to another person, the virus that causes it is contagious. This means that it’s possible to spread it from an individual who has active shingles to someone who has never had chickenpox.

In such a situation, the person contracting the virus would not develop shingles, but he or she would develop chickenpox. This virus can be spread through direct contact with the fluid produced by the blisters that appear with shingles. Before the blisters appear, the individual is not infectious. The person is no longer contagious after the rash has crusted.

Risks Related to Seniors with Shingles

Research has now shown that seniors who develop shingles face an increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Findings from a recent study indicate that the risk of stroke is more than doubled in the week following an outbreak of shingles. Heart attack risk also increases, although not as much as the risk of stroke.

While a case of shingles might not be as severe in someone in their 30s or 40s, the virus can be much more painful in someone over the age of 60. Beyond age, other factors that can increase the risk of shingles, along with associated complications, including immune-compromising conditions and stressful life events.

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The pain associated with shingles can affect the quality of one’s life and be quite debilitating. When shingles-related pain lasts for an extended period, it can prevent individuals from engaging in everyday activities.

In some cases, outbreaks that begin near the eyes or face can result in hearing or vision problems. If the cornea of the eye is affected, shingles can even lead to permanent blindness.

Treatments for Shingles

While there are treatments available to help fight the virus, at the current time, there are no treatments capable of reversing the nerve damage resulting from complications of shingles in the elderly.

For this reason, it’s sometimes necessary to try a variety of pain medications or even a combination of medications to provide adequate pain relief to patients with PHN while causing as few side effects as possible.

Treatments sometimes used to relieve the resulting nerve pain include topical lidocaine patches, anticonvulsants, tricyclic antidepressants, and opioids. Nondrug therapies, such as biofeedback and relaxation, may also sometimes be used to assist in the treatment of pain related to shingles.

Is Shingles Dangerous for Elderly People?

Studies show that your risks of getting shingles and incurring complications from the virus increase with age. Complications from shingles can be dangerous and cause long-term health problems, such as a is nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Consequently, shingles are especially serious for those who have a weakened immune system, making it harder to fight the infection.

Can an Elderly Person Die from Shingles?

If left untreated, shingles can lead to life-threatening complications that can result in death. The CDC reports that shingles kills about 100 people each year. Bacterial infections can be fatal, resulting in your body going into shock or sepsis.

Does Medicare Pay for the Shingles Vaccine?

Part A and Medicare Part B don’t cover the shingles vaccine. However, Part D will cover the shingles shot, as well as all other commercially available vaccines. Medicare Supplement plans will help fill in the gaps in coverage while under the care of your doctor.

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Part D plans do not cost much; they range from anywhere between $13-$76 a month.

SHINGRIX Shingles Vaccine

The CDC states that SHINGRIX is preferred over ZVL for the prevention of shingles and related complications.

Kayla Hopkins

Kayla Hopkins

Content Editor
Kayla Hopkins is an accomplished writer and Medicare guru serving as the Editor of MedicareFAQ.com. Upon completing her Communications degree from Ohio University, Kayla dedicated her time to understanding the ever-evolving landscape of healthcare. With her extensive background as a Licensed Insurance Agent, she brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her writing.

9 thoughts on "Complications and Side Effects of Shingles in the Elderly"

  1. I have had diagnosed shingles for one week. It is affecting my left side of face and scalp. I’m 78 yrs old and in good health. This has been very difficult. My left eye is involved but my ophthalmologist said the virus is not in the eyeball itself. I can feel the tingling and pain on the left side of my skull and pray I don’t have any complications such as meningitis or encephalopathy. It is good to have access to as much info as possible.

  2. I had severe pain in my hip and knee..then I broke out on my lower back and across my knee..for months, I could not sleep, eat, dress myself..that was in Feb…here it is in Nov…I have to get shots in my knee, my leg is numb..my back aches..

    1. I have been dealing with diverticulitis & ulcerative colitis at age 57. All this came on in the last two years . I have always stayed pretty fit, exercise, and ate a diet mostly if ruffage. A recent flare up , hospital, colonoscopy & endoscopy, two polyps removed & came back negative. I was on antibiotics and starting to feel good and boom. I came down with shingles. Started at my right rib cage & spread to my back. Antibiotics and lotions and the worse pain ever. I would think I was having a heart attack . A constant burning jolting pain inside. I can hardly raise my right arm now. I’am so fatigued and my vision just stays blurry. I can’t sleep! It’s been 6 weeks now and I can’t work. I seem to be at wits end with the Drs on nothing else to do except I’am dealing with PHN. I don’t do well with pain meds and I just try and meditate. Please any advise.

      1. Hi Frank – we are sorry to hear about your current condition. If you collect Social Security Disability insurance for over 24 months, you will be eligible for Medicare.

  3. Thank you for this excellent article about the shingles vaccine. And Thank you to the two comments make by the two ladies who got the shingles.My mom is 93 yr and I am going to show her this article because it is so well wtitten and easy to comprehend. Thank you again.

  4. I am 78 years old and have had shingles for over 30 days. It is horrible and the most pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. I keep reading it lasts 3 to 4 weeks. Will mine ever be done. The scabs are starting to fall away, but the pain is much more intense with every day. I don’t see an end in sight.

    1. I had shingles starting Nov 2017. It is now August 2020 and I am still suffering from the results. My shingles affected my left-hand forehead, skull, and eye socket. I went effectively blind for a month with severe light intolerance and could not leave darkened rooms or venture outside. Even watching TV or the computer monitor was impossible. I am now left with permanent numbness in the affected area and scarring. It took me about 4 months to get through the most severe symptoms. I feel lucky that I am able to see out of my left eye now although my vision has been compromised and it is the weaker eye. It is a very nasty disease but you do recover and get your life back.

      1. I have had this virus attack my body for many yeara. I am now 61. I have found great relief in a few things I will share. Internally: garlic (specifically gel tabs –right before bed so I don’t burp them????, L-lysine, coloidal silver along with other vitamins. Citris seems to aggravate it. Topically I am so grateful for tea tree oil, coloidal silver, epsom salt – baking soda and oatmeal baths, at times when it is severe I make a paste from zinc powder with coloidal silver or just water. Last year I bought a product called Herpesyl out of Colorado. I do believe it may actually be curing it! Thank U God! Also, of course, I notice it only happens when I eat too much food that is not “real” food, under lots of stress, or not getting enough sleep.


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