Chicken Pox Virus Tied to More Than Just Shingles

Varicella-zoster chicken pox virus tied to giant cell arteritis blood vessel disorder in elderly

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Talk of chicken pox often brings up itchy childhood memories, but the virus behind the illness may be tied to other issues that are a bit harder to scratch.

The varicella-zoster virus causes the common childhood illness chicken pox and can sometimes recur in older age and lead to the painful rash of shingles. However, a new study also tied the virus to a serious blood vessel condition in the elderly.

The condition, called giant cell arteritis, causes inflamed blood vessels — often on the scalp or temples. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can lead to issues like headaches, jaw pain and blurred vision. In rare cases, it can lead to blindness and stroke.

The Mayo Clinic noted that giant cell arteritis often shows up around age 70 and rarely develops in people younger than 50.

The authors of this new study, led by Don Gilden, MD, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, wanted to see if this condition had any connection to the varicella-zoster virus.

Dr. Gilden said in a press release that this study "provides compelling evidence that the virus also reactivates in people over 60 in another way, triggering giant cell arteritis."

Dr. Gilden and team looked at small samples of arteries located at the temple — called temporal artery biopsies. All of the biopsies came from deceased people who were older than 50.

These researchers analyzed biopsies from 84 people who had giant cell arteritis and compared them to biopsies from 13 people who had no symptoms of the condition.

Dr. Gilden and team looked for signs of the varicella-zoster virus in these samples. They found that people with giant cell arteritis were much more likely to have evidence of the virus in their bodies.

These researchers found evidence of the varicella-zoster virus in 74 percent of the biopsies from people who had giant cell arteritis. When looking at the biopsies from people without the condition, Dr. Gilden and team found evidence of the virus in only 8 percent.

This study looked at a small number of adults, and further research is needed to confirm the possible tie between varicella-zoster and giant cell arteritis.

Regardless of whether patients have been exposed to the varicella-zoster virus, the Mayo Clinic recommends acting quickly if symptoms of giant cell arteritis, such as persistent headaches, jaw pain, vision issues or unexplained weight loss, develop.

"If you're diagnosed with giant cell arteritis, starting treatment as soon as possible can usually help prevent blindness," according to the Mayo Clinic.

This study was published Feb. 18 in the journal Neurology.

The National Institutes of Health funded this research. Dr. Gilden and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
February 17, 2015
Last Updated:
February 18, 2015