Most people over 30 have had chickenpox, usually as children. A vaccine was introduced in 1995, but has been administered primarily to very young children; most people whose childhood was before that had already had the disease. Prior to the development of the vaccine, chickenpox was considered inevitable, and it was thought preferable for children to get it at a younger age than to risk catching it in adulthood, when it is more dangerous. People who have had chickenpox do not get it again.
Unlike the vaccine, however, when someone is infected, the virus remains dormant in the body, and can in adults cause a condition called shingles. Shingles occurs in adults—usually over 50—who have had chickenpox. Half of all people who live to 85 will get shingles; the risk is higher for people who have AIDS or other immune system suppressing diseases, people who have taken immune suppressant medications such as drug to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, people who have taken corticosteroid medications, and people who have had radiation therapy or chemotherapy for cancer.
The shingles themselves are scabs and blisters in a small area. These scabs usually form in a line that wraps around one side of the torso, following a painful rash; the rash develops into blisters, which itch and eventually burst and crust over. Other symptoms include fever, headache, and fatigue, as well as a general feeling of sickness. People with shingles should get medical attention, especially people over 65 or with compromised immune systems, or if the shingles form near they eye, where left untreated the condition can cause permanent damage. A doctor can prescribe antiviral drugs to heal, though not cure, the shingles.
Once the disease is healed, medical treatment is still needed. For one thing, the shingles can return, especially in people who haven’t been vaccinated. The pain stays even after the rash is gone in many cases—again, more so in patients who have not had the vaccine—and that needs to be managed. Shingles can cause neurological damage also, possibly leading to facial paralysis or poor balance or hearing. People who have shingles under age 40, according to a recent study, are at heightened risk for heart disease and stroke, as inflammatory diseases can weaken the heart.