Childhood chicken pox has a way of making a comeback—in almost one out of three adults who have had it—in the form of shingles, a painful rash and illness. The varicella zoster virus that causes the disease does not disappear after recovery from chicken pox but lies dormant in the nerve roots of the spine. Medical science does not know what causes the virus to be reactivated, but doctors are seeing more patients with this condition.
Shingles, also called herpes zoster, should not be confused with the sexually transmitted herpes simplex virus that causes genital herpes or the very common herpes labialis blisters that recur around the lips and mouth.
Shingles may begin with tingling and itching and surface as a painful rash of small blisters or vesicles on one side of the face, body, or legs. The most common and dreaded complication is persistent and recurrent pain in the nerve and muscles of the affected area, a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia, which can occur for weeks to months after the rash dries up and disappears. The symptoms can be quite debilitating, especially in the elderly, and require chronic pain management.
The majority of the more than 1 million annual cases of shingles occur in people age 60 and up, but it can also appear at any age, especially in people with immune-deficient conditions, HIV, and certain cancers (such as leukemia and lymphoma), and among steroid users and organ transplant recipients.