That childhood disease is back.
Okay, so chickenpox never went away. But media buzz about the disease has been primarily confined to advice to help parents ease their children’s bumps, blisters and rashes.
Lately, though, physicians have brought discussion of the disease, and its impact on adults, back to the forefront.
At a recent Infectious Diseases Society of America annual meeting, for example, a Columbia Presbyterian Hospital physician called for adults who didn’t have chickenpox as children to be vaccinated against the disease, citing results of a study of more than 500 vaccinated individuals.
Is chickenpox really a problem among adults?
Certainly, adults who never had it can still catch it, explained John L. Brodhead Jr., associate professor of clinical medicine. And when it hits adults, it can be a more formidable foe.
Among other complications, chickenpox can bring on interstitial pneumonia, Brodhead said. As a result, patients may end up with adult respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, a dangerous condition in which fluid gathers in the lungs and lung walls stiffen.
“Adult patients have also had strokes because of inflammation of the blood vessels,” Brodhead said. Although adults make up about 2 percent of those infected with chickenpox, they account for 50 percent of the deaths from the disease. And as more adult immigrants come to the United States from areas where childhood chickenpox is less common, cases of adult chickenpox may rise, he adds.
All from a simple virus? That’s right, Brodhead said.
Adults who never had chickenpox can easily catch it from an infected child’s sneezes or coughs. Airborne droplets can spread the chickenpox virus, known as a varicella-zoster virus (a member of the herpes family).
The vaccine may help, though, Brodhead said. Offered since 1995, the chickenpox vaccine uses a weakened virus to spur the body to create antibodies against chickenpox. That protects the body from catching the disease.
Though some advocate that all adults who have not had chickenpox should get the vaccine, Brodhead suggested that patients consult their doctor before making the decision. A doctor can take a medical history and make recommendations on what best for each patient, taking into account personal risk factors (including their age and whether they work around children).
If patients don’t remember whether they ever had chickenpox, they can take a simple blood test to find out.
Some people should avoid the vaccine, he said: those who are HIV positive, have cancer or are pregnant, or people on steroids or who recently took steroids. Other protection options are available to them if they are exposed to chickenpox.
Since the chickenpox virus remains in the body for life, even after the blisters are over, it can come back in adulthood as shingles–a condition consisting of fever, pain, malaise and a sudden eruption of blisters following a path of nerves along the skin.
But once you’ve had chickenpox, Brodhead said, “the vaccine can’t protect you from getting shingles.”