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Vulnerability to Shingles May Hinge on Family

WEDNESDAY, May 21 -- People with a family history of shingles may have increased susceptibility to the disease, say researchers at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, causes nerve pain that occurs when the chickenpox virus (varicella zoster) is reactivated in spinal nerves. Most adults carry the varicella zoster virus, but only 10 percent to 30 percent develop shingles, according to background information in the study.

There are a number of risk factors for shingles, including weakened immunity, older age and other illnesses. Stress, trauma, exposure to heavy metals and ethnicity may also play a role. Recent research has suggested genetic risk factors for shingles and other infectious diseases associated with a weakened immune system.

In this study, researchers compared 504 people treated for shingles between 1992 and 2005 to 523 people without shingles. Along with demographic data, both groups provided information about their personal and family history of shingles.

"A significantly higher proportion of [those with shingles] reported having a family history of herpes zoster [39.3 percent vs. 10.5 percent]," the study authors wrote.

They found shingles patients were 4.35 times more likely to have a first-degree relative and 4.27 times more likely to have another relative with a history of shingles than those in the control group.

"Our study suggests a strong association between the development of herpes zoster and having a blood relative with a history of zoster," the authors wrote. "Such patients represent a population that may be at increased risk of developing herpes zoster and therefore have a greater need for vaccination. Therefore, targeting these at-risk individuals based on their family history may decrease both their chance of future herpes zoster infection and health-care expenditures toward herpes zoster [illness]."

The study was published in the May issue of the Archives of Dermatology.

More information

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has more about shingles.

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Posted: May 2008