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Shingles Prevention and Treatment

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by Steve Raymond and Jill Wallace

A dear friend of ours recently developed a rash that turned out to be Shingles. It’s one of those things we don’t think much about until we get it, or if we know someone dealing with it. It is definitely no fun because it can be extremely painful. It is worth knowing about so you receive quick treatment if it ever occurs to you.

Childhood Chickenpox May Lead to Older Age Shingles

Shingles is caused by the same virus that caused chicken pox during childhood. It is called “varicella-zoster virus.” Chickenpox in your childhood creates the risk of developing shingles in your senior years. This is because the virus enters the nervous system and hides away. It can reactivate in seniors into a very uncomfortable rash. In older seniors it can produce severe medical complications. The disease does not transmit from one person to the other. It only arises from within one’s own nervous system if you had chickenpox in your childhood.

The rash usually affects a small area on one side of the body, usually on the torso, but can also begin on the neck or face. Pain symptoms can be extremely sensitive because the virus follows nerve tracts to the skin. First there is pain, burning, numbness or tingling, then a red rash breaks out. The rash develops into fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over. Other symptoms can include fever, chills, headache or an upset stomach.

Treatment and Risk

Shingles may be successfully treated in two to four weeks. However, it can also progress to severe nerve pain that may last for months. If you develop early symptoms, get treatment immediately. If you have an unusual pain or if you develop an unusual rash, it is definitely wise to check with your physician immediately, especially if you have other symptoms. While shingles cannot be cured, you might limit the outbreak with easy-to-tolerate antiviral medications. Topical creams will reduce discomfort, which can be quite severe if you let the rash get out-of-control.

Age is the biggest risk factor. Starting with age 50, the risk progresses as you get older. There is a 50% risk in people over 85. About 1/3 of all people will develop shingles at some point in their life. If you are 60 years old or older, it is wise to have a discussion with your physician about receiving the vaccine to prevent Shingles in the first place. The vaccine will reduce the chance of developing shingles by about 50%, and will reduce the severity of outbreaks if an outbreak develops.

Vaccine Recommendation for Prevention

The CDC recommends the Zostavax vaccine for adults over 60, with several exceptions. It is a single injection in the upper arm. Consult your physician to see if the shingles vaccine is appropriate for you. Medicare Part D will cover the vaccine as a prescriptive drug, even though it is a preventive vaccine. Paying for Zostavax runs from $215 to $250. Check with your private health insurance carrier to see if the cost is covered. Read more from the Centers for Disease Control on Shingles vaccination.

A Shingles infection is much more dangerous to your health than the vaccine to protect against it. Like any medicine, this vaccine can cause side effects, but the risk of serious side effects is reported to be extremely low. Have this conversation with your physician.