Shingles and Chickenpox: July 20, 2012

If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you’re at risk for getting shingles later in life. Health experts say the virus can lay dormant in our body for up to 70 years. It’s why they recommend older adults get a shingles vaccine.

Like many her age, Diane Breen shouldered her share of childhood illnesses, including chickenpox.

“I do remember having them when I was probably in grade school.  I don’t remember the specific age that I had it,” says Breen.

Her symptoms likely subsided without much excitement, but a remnant of the virus will stick with Diane forever.

“Shingles, or otherwise known as herpes zoster, is like the chickenpox virus that lays dormant in your body, usually around the nerves,” says Dr. Bruce Lipschutz, an internal medicine physician with Lee Memorial Health System.

Health officials are noticing an uptick in shingles as the virus is being reactivated in adults, sometimes decades later.

“We may have an episode of pain around the ribs, around the front or back, around the legs. These are nerve patterns and that’s why they hurt so much.  And the virus causes tremendous inflammation,” says Dr. Lipschutz.

Shingles starts with tingling, then pain, followed by a rash. It can lead to long-term nerve damage. About a quarter of adults who had chickenpox will get it. At least half of them could avoid it by getting the shingles vaccine.

“The vaccine is a wonderful vaccine that can decrease the incidents of herpes zoster by about 50 percent,” says Dr. Lipschutz.

But many people aren’t aware of the shingles vaccine or their risk.

“I was not aware of it until just a few years ago when I started hearing about the vaccine, that you can get when you reach age 60,” says Breen.

Half the cases affect people sixty or over.  The number should eventually drop because children today get a chickenpox vaccine. But for people like Diane, the disease could be dormant for decades.