Tonawanda News

February 19, 2013

Doctor suggests adult vaccinations for chicken pox and shingles

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — There are a lot of misconceptions about adult chicken pox and shingles, and Dr. Qamrunnisa Rahman, a physician at Kenton Family Care Center, said she wants to set the record straight.

Veteran journalist Barbara Walters was recently hospitalized with chicken pox, bringing a little more attention to a disease that most people associate with a childhood right of passage. But chicken pox is not just for the kids, Rahman said, and it can be an even more serious problem for adults, especially the elderly.

“Children get a mild (case of chicken pox) and they recover really fast,” she said. “But adults may get a pretty severe attack.”

People at a higher risk for complications from chicken pox include those over 65 years of age, pregnant women, those with asthma and those with a compromised immune system. Diabetes, HIV, those on immunosupressive medications and people who have had organ transplants are particularly susceptible, the Centers for Disease Control indicates on its website.

Just because you’ve made it to a ripe old age and have never had the chicken pox, doesn’t mean you’re immune, Rahman added. You might have just been lucky. And just because you never broke out with an itchy rash doesn’t mean you’ve never had chicken pox, either.

“You could have had a subclinical attack and you may not be aware of it,” Rahman said.

There’s a test physicians can do to determine if a patient has had the virus or not, which is important to have done if you’re not sure. Adults who have never had the chicken pox should have the vaccine, just like their kids.

The vaccine is perhaps even more important for adults because the complications from the virus for older patients can be “horrendous,” Rahman said.

Typical, serious complications from the chicken pox include dehydration, pneumonia, bleeding problems, infection or inflammation of the brain, blood stream infections, toxic shock syndrome, bone infections and joint infections, the CDC lists on its website.

“When you have chicken pox as a kid, it’s a very benign disease and I think you’re lucky if you’ve had it because you recover very well,” Rahman said. “If you have it when you’re old, the attack can be horrible. That’s why they’re trying to immunize everybody. The older you get your body is not able to fight as much.”

Another issue of concern for adults is a possible re-emergence of the chicken pox virus, the varicella zoster virus. After recovering from chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in nerve cells. 

Varicella zoster can express itself again as shingles when the body’s immune system is compromised whether through another acute illness, or a more chronic condition like diabetes or due to old age.

Shingles differs from chicken pox in that the rash is more centralized to the trunk of the body, usually on just one side. Rahman said she often sees the rash along the lower back.

“Because the virus is already there and it is hybernating in your nerve cells, it (expresses itself) superficially along the nerves that are distributed in your body,” Rahman said. 

The pain, she said, can be excruciating and may linger months, even years after the rash has faded.

Rahman said anyone over the age of 65 or who has a compromised immune system should get the shingles vaccine. Shingles can be very contagious during the weeping blistering stage and can be passed on to someone who has never had chicken pox. That person, young or old, would then get the chicken pox. The virus can not be passed on to someone who has already had chicken pox, the CDC says.

Both the chicken pox and shingles vaccine can be obtained through your physician, Rahman said, and even at some pharmacies. Those who wish to go through a pharmacy must have a prescription from their doctor, though.

For more information about both diseases, visit www.cdc.org.

FACTS ABOUT CHICKEN POX AND SHINGLES • You may have had the chicken pox at some point, but never had symptoms. A doctor can perform a test if you're not sure you've had it. • It is more difficult to recover from chicken pox as an adult. • If you've had the chicken pox, the virus still exists in your body and can express itself as shingles. • Those over 65 years old and/or with a compromised immune system are more at risk of catching chicken pox and having shingles. • There are vaccines for both chicken pox and shingles.

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.