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Shingles can come back. Yes it can

February 03, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman receives a vaccine against shingles.
A woman receives a vaccine against shingles. (Centers for Disease Control…)

Shingles is typically thought of as a once-in-a-lifetime (miserable) experience. But wait! Shingles can recur, even among healthy adults.

The illness is caused by the herpes zoster virus. While researchers have known that people with weak immune systems due to other illnesses can develop shingles a second time, healthy people were thought to be one-time-only victims. The illness causes a burning or tingling sensation in the skin in one area of the body followed by blisters that last a few weeks.

A new study looked at medical records from almost 1,700 people older than 22 who had a documented episode of shingles between 1996 and 2001. The researchers then combed over the patients' records to look for a second episode. They found that the recurrence rate was more than 5% -- the same rate that people have for a first-outbreak of shingles. Some people had experienced several outbreaks. The average follow-up of these patients was only eight years. So the true recurrence rate is probably well above 5%, said the lead author of the study Dr. Barbara Yawn, director of research at Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, Minn.

Recurrences were found in healthy people and those with compromised immune systems. Women were more likely than men to have shingles and were also more likely to experience a recurrence. Age did not appear to make a difference in recurrence rates. However, the authors did find that people who experienced pain lasting more than 30 days after the initial onset of shingles were more likely to have another case, particularly in the first three to four years after the first outbreak.

The findings may prompt people who have had shingles to get the herpes zoster vaccine. Right now, guidelines say that the vaccine can be used in people who have had shingles, but there is no evidence on whether it helps, Yawn said.

"We do not yet know the effectiveness in preventing recurrence," said Yawn in an e-mail. "But the safety profile is excellent and makes physiological sense that it may prevent a recurrence."

The study appears in the February issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Related: Study of shingles vaccine supports wider use

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