Shingles Virus

Last week  I had a holiday dinner with several older women (72 to 92).  One of their big topics of discussion was “shingles immunization” i. e. “have you had yours yet?” or “who can safely have the immunization?” I felt left out. Is this an older women’s disease? What is this? Who gets this?

 Being at least a decade younger than all the other women, and having never experienced this condition, neither personally nor professionaly,  nor did I know anyone who had, I was perplexed. Better come home and read about this, like right now! Because I will be getting questions…

So from reading professional articles,  I found out that shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus.  This is the same virus that causes chicken pox, which so many in my generation , and even our children, were exposed to, and generally acquired, prior to the days of immunization to avoid chicken pox. Does this mean we are less likely, or more likely to acquire “shingles”? 

 I am a 61 yo mother of sons who are now 22 and 25. So not that long ago, my sons missed preschool at Stanford University because they both acquired chicken pox which was running rampant through their preschool. At the very same time, a pediatric endocrinogist at the same university,  was hard at work in the her lab in the attempt to develop an immunization against chicken pox. Now chicken pox has become another childhood disease that is hopefully on its road to extinction, or at least, major reduction.

 My crazy ability to remember minutae recalls my memories of two little guys, home from “school”, bored and itchy, itchy, itchy in their little matching hooded red bathrobes. And though I didn’t want to expose other children, we HAD to go out for walks before we all went nuts!

 Well, back to shingles. Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox, as mentioned above. One cannot “catch” shingles from another person who has shingles, BUT if you have never had chicken pox, you could contract chicken pox from someone who has shingles. As it goes, the younger, or older, that we are, the more these viruses tax our immune system, our bodies, our lives.  After one has had chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in some cells of the body next to the spinal cord, and can reactivate as shingles. One is more likely to get shingles as one gets older and the immune system is weakened, and/or if one already has a compromised immune system due to another diagnosis.

So I naturally asked these dinner guests what symtoms they had. They described a “band” or a “ring” of tiny blisters, or a rash,  somewhere on their trunk or limbs, usually limited to one side. They were described as painful. What may seem to present as a relatively benign rash can result in a more serious complications. So do see a health care provider if you have something that fits this description.

 As for immunization: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 60 and over consider vaccination. While the immunization will not guarantee that you never get this condition, you will more likely have a less severe illness. Keep in mind that your health insurance may not reimburse you for this vaccination.

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