Common ailments

Shingles

I am a full time carer for my disabled father who is 68. Yesterday I noticed that my father has developed what appear to be bed sores along the outer right side of his lower torso and around the same side of his back. He’s been feeling generally quite achy and the area is causing him considerable pain. On closer inspection the sore area has a rash with fluid-filled blisters. Is it possible my father has shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection that develops as a result of a chickenpox infection. After you’ve had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox lies dormant and can be reactivated years later as shingles. It is believed that the reason for reactivation of the virus is due to lowered immunity to infections as we grow older. Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles however it is more common in older adults.

From the symptoms you describe, it sounds very likely that your father does have shingles. Pain or abnormal sensations in the area of skin affected are usually the first signs of shingles. A rash resembling chickenpox then appears, though the virus tends to cause more pain and less itching than with chickenpox. The rash usually lasts around seven days but the pain may continue for longer. Another tell-tale sign of shingles is that the rash typically affects just one side of the body.

It is not possible to ‘catch’ shingles but a person with shingles can pass the virus to anyone who hasn’t had chickenpox before, thereby infecting them with chickenpox but not shingles. This is usually through direct contact with the fluid from the blisters.

There is no cure for shingles nevertheless I would strongly recommend your father contacts his GP. Due to his age, he may be at higher risk of developing complications and his GP may therefore prescribe antiviral medication to reduce the severity and duration of the illness. However, this medication only helps reduce the severity and duration of the condition if started within the first 72 hours of the rash appearing. Medication to treat the symptoms of pain and itching are available from your local pharmacy.

Vaccination against shingles is offered routinely for people aged 70, with a catch-up vaccine for those aged 79. Your father would therefore benefit from uptake of the vaccine when he turns 70 to protect him from developing the illness again in the future.

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