Caused by the same virus as Chickenpox, which strikes when you’re young, the risk of getting Shingles comes with advanced age. The nasty little varicella-zoster virus lays dormant in your nerve cells all your life after being contracted, and about 1 in 3 adults will suffer from Shingles in their lifetime.
Thankfully, in 2018 there are out of pocket vaccines available across Canada that can be given to anyone over the age of 50, even if they have had Shingles in the past or never contracted Chickenpox. The Shingles vaccine is free in Ontario if you are between the ages of 65 and 70. It’s certainly a conversation worth having with your doctor, and that’s great news…
…But what if you’re caring for someone who is currently in the middle of a Shingles outbreak, and is experiencing a painful rash and blistering?
Getting to the doctor
Once you’ve got that rash, there’s no turning back the clock on your own. Shingles can cause blindness or hearing damage when it spreads to the face or neck, and so it’s very important to get straight to the doctor, ideally within the first 3 days. Any rash at all in advanced age should be taken seriously (as likely being Shingles) and be addressed ASAP.
If someone in your care is suffering, but is stubbornly trying to avoid seeking medical assistance (“It’s just a rash…”) you can help by assuring them they can be treated as an outpatient, at home. It is incredibly rare to be hospitalized for Shingles.
Typical care can take 3 to 5 weeks and will involve a combination of anti-viral medication, steroids, or other analgesics for pain.
Rest is very important, so that an aging immune system can recover. Reducing stress can also speed up recovery. This can be difficult if the person you’re caring for has a great deal of pain associated with their outbreak.
There are some home remedies to promote comfort and healing, however these are NOT to be used in lieu of professional medical care. Cool colloidal oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, and cold cloths can greatly ease the burning and itching sensations, and make the senior you’re caring for feel less stressed and looked after. Ice packs can be used, but for no more than 10 minutes at a time.
During an outbreak, caregivers can help recovery via meal prep, too! Try to avoid foods with high levels of arginine, an amino acid found in foods like chocolate, nuts and soy products, wheat, and gelatin. Coffee and alcohol are a big no-no, too.
That’s a lot of don’ts. So, what should you cook for someone in your care? Food rich in lysine but low in arginine, like citrus fruits, leafy greens, dairy products, cheese, apples, mangoes, fish, meat and poultry. If your doctor approves, supplements for vitamins A, B-6, E, folate, zinc and iron can also help fortify your immune system.
Even though medical science has developed a vaccine that can prevent Shingles, many senior citizens still suffer from this condition, and often leave it unreported until pain is intolerable. Pay close attention to any rashes, and be mindful of how healing is progressing.