Study finds recurrences of shingles prevalent in the immunocompetent population

For decades, medical wisdom about shingles has been that it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The commonly-held belief is that patients are protected from a recurrence of the herpes zoster virus, which causes shingles, after one episode. But according to a study published in the February issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, recurrences of shingles may be significantly more common than doctors have suspected.

“Recurrence was prevalent in the immunocompetent population. We were very surprised by the results.”

"It's been thought that recurrences were limited to people with compromised immune systems, for instance from chemotherapy or bloodborne malignancies, but this is not the case," says lead author Barbara Yawn, M.D., director of research at Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester. "Recurrence was prevalent in the immunocompetent population. We were very surprised by the results."

The research team examined medical records, dating from 1996 to 2001, of nearly 1,700 patients over age 22 who had a documented episode of shingles. The condition causes a specific type of skin rash and severe pain. They then searched area medical records to determine whether those patients had been treated for a second episode at any point, following them up to 12 years (the average follow-up was eight years). The data showed the recurrence rate was over 5 percent, the same rate an age-matched cohort would be expected to experience a first case of shingles. Some patients had experienced as many as three recurrences. "And that's only within eight years," Dr. Yawn notes. "As you continue to follow these patients throughout their lives, it's likely the recurrence rate will be much higher than 5 percent."

The study found that women, who are more likely than men to have shingles, also were more likely to experience a recurrence of the disease. Although the team had suspected that recurrence rates would be higher in older patients, age did not appear to make individuals more susceptible to another round of the disease. Instead, researchers found the most striking determinant for recurrence was patients' pain during the initial episode. Those who had experienced pain lasting more than 30 days after the initial onset of shingles were more likely to face a recurrence, particularly in the first three to four years after the initial episode. This, too, surprised the research team. "We'd thought that suffering a worse case would possibly give patients more resistance to a second occurrence, but our data presented the exact opposite," says Dr. Yawn.

The results suggest that the herpes zoster vaccine, which is known to reduce first-time occurrences of shingles by 50 percent, may help patients avoid a second episode. "Until now, we haven't been able to tell patients their risks of getting zoster a second time," Dr. Yawn says. "This study offers another piece of information for patients and doctors who are discussing the likelihood of recurrence and considering a prevention strategy."


 Mayo Clinic


  1. Cassie S. Cassie S. United States says:

    I could have told them this two years ago. I have had FIVE shingles outbreaks in the past two years (one presently). I had the vaccine before my first outbreak and still got it. While the rash has been contained to a small area on my back right shoulder every time, the pain is what gets me. I have had horrible flu-like symptoms this time around and I just found the rash a couple of days ago.  

  2. S P S P United States says:

    I get it every 1-2 years or sometimes 6 months.  I have had about 7 occurrances in the past 12 years.

  3. Linda J. Linda J. United States says:

    In the mid seventies, when I was in my twenties, I would have a shingles outbreak along my left collarbone every spring and fall. This went on for several years, gradually slowed and then stopped. I haven't had another outbreak in 30 years.

  4. Jessica Jessica United States says:

    I have had 2 shingles outbreaks in the last two months (one presently).

    I normally have an outbreaks every six months.

    I am 39 year old. I don't want to think when I reach my 60s..

  5. Carrie Kreplick Giest Carrie Kreplick Giest United States says:

    I am having my 6th episode of shingles in less than 3 years. I am 58 years old. I am trying to find someone who may be doing research on those of us with multiple cases. I would be happy to be part of a study.

    • KohalaLover .Griffin KohalaLover .Griffin United States says:

      I am also 58 (female) and have had either the same outbreak for over two years or have had six, possibly seven outbreaks in the same spot that come and go. I paid for the vaccine ($214.00!) as my insurance wouldn't cover it.  I have bad health insurance so the nurse practitioner recommends nothing for me besides rest and eating healthy.  I don't have a compromised immune system (no HIV, hepatitis, etc.).

  6. Peter Gartner Randrup Peter Gartner Randrup Canada says:

    When I told my doctor that my shingles return quite regularly he said it couldn' t be shingles....must be impetigo. But it's not impetigo....sometimes there's no rash just a sharp pain.  Remember as a kid giving "snake bites buy twisting the skin on someone's arm? That's the pain from shingles....a searing pain, almost like the skin is ripping.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
Post a new comment
You might also like... ×
Research sheds light on sun-induced DNA damage and repair