19 December 2005
Shingles is a disease best described as "reactivated chickenpox." I surmise it is termed 'shingles' because the lesions that arise...well...you have to agree they sort of resemble roof shingles, right? Or it can also be because the word comes from the Latin 'cingulum,' which means girdle or belt, and also a way to characterize the lesion spread.
If you've had chickenpox before, then you must know that the culprit --- the varicella zoster virus --- does not really go away when you get rid of your chickenpox blisters. You weaken them with your natural immunity and probably antiviral meds you took, but they don't leave your body.
The varicella zoster virus is a sly creature. It retreats to nerve cells in your body, and lies dormant there for decades, until you finally reach your 50th or 60th or 70th birthday, and it makes an appearance again, this time as shingles. It takes advantage of your weakened immunity as an older person, and it comes back with a vengeance, the pain felt often described as "unrelenting." Because it made your nerve cells its nest, don't be surprised that it spreads on your body in an area that is supplied by sensory fibers of a single nerve, which doctors like me call a dermatome. The affected areas are usually a well-defined band on one side of the body, typically the chest area, or, on one side of the face, or around the nose and eyes. Not a beautiful sight, I tell you. Very painful, too.
The good news is that the US FDA recently approved a new shingles vaccine, called Zostavax®. A double dose of chickenpox vaccine, Zostavax®, the hopes are high that it can prevent the occurence of postherpetic neuralgia, a condition commonly found in elderly people in their 70s and 80s.
Another good news on the vaccine front concerns Cervarix® vaccine, which has recently been shown to prevent infection with the virus that causes cervical cancer. Young girls belonging to the 10-14 age group were shown to have the highest immune response. Preliminary study results have suggested that the strongest and most prolonged protection may occur if the vaccine is given to girls at very young ages, long before they encounter the sexually transmitted virus.
Written by Dr. Emer at 12:51 PM