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Ask the doctor: Chickenpox and shingles - a lifelong connection

Ask the doctor: Chickenpox and shingles - a lifelong connection

By Christopher Coyne

It starts with a cough, maybe a sneeze, and then it ends up staying with you for the rest of your life. Sounds a little frightening, but we're just talking about the varicella-zoster virus; chickenpox to you and me. Even if we didn't have chickenpox as a child, we know what it is: a highly contagious condition that manifests itself in itchy blisters all over the body, which linger for a week or two. But once you've had chickenpox, you probably just put them out of your mind forever. You shouldn't. That virus is still there, and it may come back later in life as the much more painful and debilitating condition known as herpes zoster, or shingles.

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So how does this happen? Why does it happen? Healthy Life spoke to area physician Dr. Dariusz Listopadzki of the Arnot Health office in Painted Post about this insidious life-long virus and what we can do to protect ourselves. Dr. Listopadzki says that, of children not vaccinated, 90 percent of those exposed to the virus will get chicken pox. Once a child has contracted the virus they are contagious, even before they exhibit the tell-tale blisters that we all associate with chicken pox. The virus is passed on through droplets, either from a sneeze, a cough - even talking can propel droplets of saliva into the air, contaminating those nearby. The virus can also be picked up by contact with an affected person's chickenpox lesions before they have crusted over.

But what happens next is where it gets interesting. Once a person has chickenpox, that virus lives on in them, and burrows in for the long haul. Anyone who has ever had chickenpox has the virus, and therefore will always have a chance to get shingles. The virus lays dormant deep in our system and may flare up again if the immune system is compromised. That's why shingles most often appear in people over 60, as their immune systems are naturally waning as part of the aging process. The reason shingles are usually so much more painful than chickenpox is that the virus attaches itself to a person's nerve cells. When the virus breaks dormancy it follows through nerve ganglia and sensory neurons, and that means pain-as well a nasty rash on the skin along that nerve path.

Dr. Listopadzki says our only real defense is vaccination. And since its widespread acceptance, the vaccine has been very effective. Since 1995 there has been a recommended varicella vaccination schedule in place. Children generally should receive two vaccinations; one between 12 and 18 months and the second between ages 4 and 6. And once a child is vaccinated they are protected for life. That means, they'll not only most likely not ever get chickenpox, they'll also not have to be concerned about shingles late in life!

Q: If I've never had chickenpox, can't I still get shingles later in life?
A: Not initially. If the virus isn't in your system, you won't get shingles. However, if you've never been vaccinated and are exposed to the virus, you CAN get chickenpox-no matter what your age. Then the virus will be in your system and you might get shingles later. A vaccine is available for eligible adults. Ask your doctor if you're a candidate.

Contibutor:

Dariusz Listopadzki, MD
Arnot Health Office
418 S. Hamilton St.
Painted Post, NY