One of the consequences of contracting chicken pox (Varicella zoster) is that the virus is not destroyed by the body’s immune system. Once the symptoms of chicken pox disappear, the virus hides itself in the basal root ganglion, unseen by the immune system. Even though the body generated an immune response to the original zoster infection, after several decades, the response is either weakened or disappears.
Eventually, due to unknown factors (such as stress or other illnesses), the zoster virus “moves” along the nerve bundles, and causes a second infection with much more serious consequences to the patient. This second infection is called herpes zoster (despite being the same exact virus, it was given a different name probably because it was originally thought to be two different viruses, but in this case, it’s not given a formal biological binomial name), or more commonly, shingles. This infection usually happens when the patient is in their 50’s and older, though it can happen at any time.
Shingles is incredibly painful depending on the location. It can cause a blindness, disfigurement of the area infected, permanent pain, and other conditions. It can be treated with antivirals, but only if the infection is recognized and treated within 24-72 hours, a time frame that might not allow most individuals to get to their doctor. The initial symptoms may even appear like acne or some other skin condition, which many people might ignore.
The only way to prevent a shingles infection is to boost the immune system with a new immunization against the zoster virus. Zostavax has just been approved by the FDA for prevention of shingles in 50-59 year olds (and it has previously been approved for 60-69 year olds). Since I don’t work for the FDA nor the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the vaccine (Merck & Co.), I’d ask your doctor for it when you’re in your 40’s, even if it’s off-label.
Just to pre-empt the silly anti-vaccination memes out there, let’s review:
- Chicken pox is a dangerous disease.
- If you had chicken pox, then it’s latent form, Herpes zoster, is even more dangerous, painful, and disfiguring. There isn’t anything you can do to prevent it. There isn’t anything you can do to cure it, unless you’re lucky enough to recognize the early symptoms and get to a physician for anti-viral drugs.
- Vaccines prevents prevent both forms, and booster shots are necessary.