Q: I had shingles a few years ago. What are the chances that it will recur? Should I get vaccinated against it?
A: Shingles may recur a little more often than previously thought. It used to be assumed that a first outbreak boosted the immune system's ability to ward off another attack, and that recurrences happened primarily in people with compromised immune systems. But a recent study from the Mayo Clinic of 1,669 people with shingles (herpes zoster) found that about 6 percent of them experienced a recurrence during the next eight years. That's similar to the rate that would be expected for first cases of shingles.
The study did find that immunocompromised people (those undergoing chemotherapy, for instance, or who have leukemia, lymphoma, or HIV) had a higher recurrence rate, about 15 percent. Women were more likely than men to have shingles initially as well as shingles more than once. Advanced age did not make people more prone to a second outbreak, but people who had more severe cases were more likely to have a recurrence.
Because the study ended in 2007, none of the subjects had gotten the shingles vaccine, which was approved that year for people over 60 and reduces the risk by half. The new study suggests that people who have already had shingles may also benefit from the vaccine, though this has not been adequately studied. People with a weakened immune system should not get the vaccine, however.
Source: Originally published in The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (May 2011)