A recent report published in the Archives of Dermatology finds that people who have herpes zoster – commonly known as shingles – are more likely to have family members who also have had the condition.

Herpes zoster is a disease characterized by a skin rash with blisters in a specific area or on one side of the body. It is caused when the virus varicella zoster – the virus that causes chickenpox – becomes reactivated in nerves of the spinal cord. Though the majority of adults carry varicella zoster, only between 10% and 30% actually develop shingles. The disease leads to nerve pain and can be very expensive to treat. People who are older, depressed, and have compromised immune systems or other illnesses are more likely to suffer with shingles. However, it has also been previously shown that sex, ethnicity, stress, trauma and exposure to heavy metals are risk factors associated with the disease. Recent research in the field of genetics has pointed to additional related risk factors for shingles and other infectious diseases associated with reduced immune capabilities.

The research focus of Lindsey D. Hicks, B.S. (University of Texas Medical School at Houston) and colleagues was to assess risk factors for herpes zoster beyond age and immunosuppression, particularly because of the availability of a new herpes zoster vaccine. The researchers analyzed 504 patients who were treated for herpes zoster between 1992 and 2005 and compared them to 523 control individuals who were treated for other minor or chronic skin conditions at the same clinic. Additional data were collected that pertained to demographic information as well as the personal and family history of herpes zoster.

The authors’ main finding was that, “A significantly higher proportion of cases reported having a family history of herpes zoster (39.3 percent vs. 10.5 percent).” Compared to individuals in the control group, those who had herpes zoster were 4.35 times as likely to have a first-degree relative and 4.27 times more likely to have some other blood relative with a history of the disease.

“Our study suggests a strong association between the development of herpes zoster and having a blood relative with a history of zoster. 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 morbidity,” conclude the authors.

Family History as a Risk Factor for Herpes Zoster: A Case-Control Study
Lindsey D. Hicks; Robert H. Cook-Norris; Natalia Mendoza; Vandana Madkan; Anita Arora; Stephen K. Tyring
Archives of Dermatology. (2008). 144[5]:603-608.
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Written by: Peter M Crosta