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Shingles and Autoimmune Disease

By Elaine Moore on 3/8/2018

Shingles is a disorder that occurs when the varicella zoster virus is reactivated in people who had chicken pox at an earlier time, usually in childhood. While pain and a blistering rash are the usual characteristics, the virus can affect the eye causing complications of glaucoma, cataracts and even blindness.

Early treatment can prevent these complications but since symptoms can vary, it's not always easy to realize treatment is needed. In my case, I developed severe tightness around my chest, making me suspect costochronditis or shingles. My doctor agreed but in the absence of a rash didn't treat it but advised watching. The next day I developed a mild rash on my upper back and returned to the doctor. I started antivirals right away, used apple cider vinegar compresses to keep the lesions from blistering, and ended up with a very mild case.

Recently, a family member developed shingles. The pain started a few days before the rash. The scalp and temple pain, which was severe, made us think that it was temporal arteritis or a return of skin cancer. This, of course, was a Saturday so we waited until Monday. By then the eye had become inflamed and a rash began cropping up on the forehead and scalp. On Monday we went to Urgent Care where they immediately diagnosed shingles with varicella conjunctivitis. They prescribed Valtrex, an anti-viral med and prednisone, and advised seeing an eye doctor. The optometrist prescribed prednisone eye drops and schedule a follow up. The next day the eye was swollen shut so we went to the ER, where they consulted with an ophthalmologist and prescribed pain meds, an erythromycin eye ointment to keep the area moist and stopped the prednisone drops. A subsequent visit to the ophthalmologist showed optic nerve damage. Optical shingles can lead to cataracts, glaucoma, and blindness. We were also advised that besides experiencing flares of the rash and post-herpetic pain, the eye alone can experience flares of the disease after it's healed in the absence of rash.

For someone who recognizes early symptoms and gets on antivirals quickly, shingles can be mild. For those who experience atypical symptoms and are not inclined to seek medical help quickly, shingles can be a nightmare. Shingles does come on suddenly and early signs can be easily missed. While the shingles vaccine doesn't prevent shingles in every case, symptoms are reported to be milder.

Those of us with autoimmune diseases are easily exposed to shingles when we come in contact with children recently vaccinated with chicken pox. In both cases described here, no credible reason for our developing shingles was apparent. For that reason alone, getting the vaccine may be a good idea.

While the first vaccine was associated with major side effects including blindness, the new Shingrix vaccine is reported to be more effective and safer. For more information, see





Alternative medicine
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chicken pox
varicella zoster

Graves' Disease and Autoimmune Disease Education
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