Asthmatics at Higher Risk for Developing Shingles

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional
Medically Reviewed

If you have asthma then you are probably aware that you are at an increased risk for certain illnesses like pneumonia, for example. One illness you may not know you have added risk for developing is shingles. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology adult asthmatics were 70 percent more likely to develop shingles than participants without asthma.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection that causes an excruciatingly painful rash. The virus is caused by the varicella-zoster virus - the same virus that causes chicken pox.  In persons who have had chicken pox the virus never really goes away. The virus actually remains in the body in an inactive state and settles near the nerve tissue of the brain and spinal cord. Years later the virus can reappear or be reactivated as shingles, a painful blistering rash that follows nerve pathways.

Why are asthmatics more likely to get shingles?

While researchers are not entirely sure why asthmatics are at a higher risk for shingles there are several theories that may explain the phenomenon. One theory is that because asthma can suppress adaptive immunity, the portion of the immune system that eliminates or prevents the growth of pathogens by immunological memory, it increases the risk that the virus will reactivate as shingles.

Many people with asthma also have impaired immune function of the airway and skin. This is why skin conditions like eczema or atopic dermatitis are often seen in asthmatics. The same impaired immune function may also lead to the development of shingles in these individuals.

The final factor that may play a role in the high rate of shingles in asthmatics is the use of oral corticosteroid. These medications are often used to reduce inflammation in the airway when the inhaled steroids are not able to control the problem. It is important to note that the researchers found no link between inhaled steroids and the development of shingles.

What can I do to prevent shingles?

The risk of getting shingles increases as you get older, though it can occur in younger adults. Having HIV/AIDs or cancer can increase risk, as can undergoing radiation or chemotherapy treatment. Children who receive the varicella vaccine appear to have lower risk of developing shingles compared to children infected with wild-type VZV (chicken pox). Adults over age 50 can get vaccinated with the new shingles vaccine, Shingrix, which requires two doses two to six months apart. If not available, Zostavax can still be used in healthy adults ages 60 or older. While these vaccines don’t completely eliminate the chance of shingles they do greatly reduce the likelihood of developing it and if you do develop shingles it is generally less severe than someone who had not been vaccinated.

Unfortunately, many of the other risk factors that asthmatics have for shingles are not controllable. The last factor that is within our control is preventing the overuse of oral corticosteroids which puts individuals at higher risk of infections in general because of immune impairment. Using the appropriate maintenance medication or inhaled steroids to maintain proper lung function prevents flare ups can help asthmatics avoid over using oral corticosteroids.

When to talk to your doctor

If you have asthma and had chicken pox as a child you should discuss the viability of getting vaccinated with the shingles vaccine with your physician. Children with asthma should be vaccinated with the chicken pox vaccine as indicated by their immunization schedule. You can check with your child’s pediatrician to insure that all of their immunizations and boosters are up to date.

Talk with your physician immediately if you exhibit any symptoms of shingles such as pain, burning, tingling (generally on one side of the body) followed by a painful blistering rash. Your physician may want to prescribe an antiviral medication, numbing cream or pain medication to treat the shingles and deal with the pain it causes. Shingles can last anywhere from 2-6 weeks, though in some cases the rash can last longer or the rash can resolve but pain along affected nerve endings can persist.

Jennifer has a bachelor’s degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition. She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years. Jennifer also serves the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).** See More Helpful Articles:**

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