Long after their childhood chicken pox has faded, each year more than one million Americans suffer from outbreaks of shingles, a painful ailment caused by the virus that has hidden dormant in their bodies for decades. And the plain fact is that nine out of 10 people are at risk of shingles, because that's how many people have had chicken pox.
The sleeping virus
"The varicella zoster virus that causes chicken pox isn't completely cured after the disease," says Dr. Richard Greenberg, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital. "It goes dormant in the body, but fortunately it's kept in check by responses in the body's immune system."
The virus can "sleep" in its hiding place in nerves for decades--long after its human host has forgotten about how he or she stayed home from school because of the red rash of chicken pox. The age of its awakening varies, but Greenberg says, "The magic number seems to be about 60 years of age and older when the highest rate of shingles is seen."
Symptoms of shingles generally appear when a person's immune system is weakening, allowing the varicella zoster virus to cause an outbreak that generally lasts two to three weeks. However, the virus can cause some lingering and unpleasant complications, including post-herpetic neuralgia, a condition that causes long-term nerve pain, and changes in vision, including a potential loss of sight if the rash occurs around the eye.
"Shingles is not a minor inconvenience," Greenberg says. "It's a disease that can have major consequences, and can really disturb the way people enjoy life."
New vaccine now available
Fortunately, a new vaccine is now available to help people avoid the disease or at least reduce the suffering it can cause.
"During the clinical trial of this new shingles vaccine, we saw the number of outbreaks reduced by 50 percent," Greenberg says. "Even the people who came down with shingles did not get a severe case of post-herpetic neuralgia."
Greenberg headed up a research team at UK, one of 22 research sites that participated in the eight-year study of the vaccine led by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Cooperative Studies Program. More than 1,100 Kentuckians participated and received the vaccine.
People over 60 should consider getting vaccinated, Greenberg says. "If you had chicken pox as a child, you're at risk for shingles as an adult. It makes sense to me to get the vaccination, because it can help fight the discomfort of the disease."
COMMON SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF SHINGLES
* Burning, itching, or tingling of the skin
* Skin sensitivity and/or pain in the area of the skin before the rash appears
* A rash, which appears a few days after the pain and initially looks like small, red spots that turn into blisters
* Fluid-filled blisters that turn yellow and then crust over
* Fever and chills
* Upset stomach or abdominal pain
The symptoms of shingles may resemble other medical conditions, and don't always appear the same in each person. Always consult your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.