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Angelina Jolie released a lighthearted video announcing she has chickenpox and will miss the premiere of her film “Unbroken”, but chickenpox is no laughing matter for adults.
It can cause complications that range from pneumonia to toxic shock syndrome, and Jolie’s now at risk of shingles, a painful and hard-to-treat recurrence of the virus.
For people 50 and older, chickenpox still carries almost comical memories of kids bathed in pink calamine lotion being nagged not to scratch the itchy blisters covering their bodies. It was a rite of passage in the pre-vaccine days, like measles and mumps.
But like those illnesses, the highly infectious varicella-zoster virus is and always has been a killer.
It’s a herpes virus, in the same family of viruses that cause cold sores and genital herpes. Like those other viruses, it causes weeping sores that can itch or hurt like crazy and that spread before they crust over and heal.
And just like most herpes viruses, they stay in the body for life, living in the nerves and waiting for the right moment to come back and wreak painful havoc.
Before the chickenpox or varicella vaccine came into widespread use, about 4 million people got chickenpox each year in the United States. More than 10,000 would be sick enough to be hospitalized and 100 to 150 died every year.
The vaccine’s now required for most schoolchildren, so chickenpox isn’t common any more. Adults can get the vaccine, also, and while it isn’t 100 percent effective, it can make the symptoms far less irritating and dangerous for the unlucky few who do catch the virus.
So what’s Jolie in for, besides itching and embarrassment? Like any viral infection, chickenpox can cause headaches, body aches and general tiredness. She’ll need to stay away from newborns and anyone with a weak immune system, such as people getting treated for cancer.
Like a lot of viruses, people stay sick for a week or two and patients are highly infectious. The fluid in the blisters can transmit the virus but so can a cough or a sneeze.
It’s often hard to track down when and where a person got infected because it takes 10 to 21 days to start showing symptoms. It’s hard to remember back that far.
Drugs developed to treat herpes can help with a varicella infection – they’re called acyclovir and valacyclovir, and they stop the virus’s replication cycle.
And now Jolie will risk getting shingles for the rest of her life, too. It’s called zoster but it’s caused by that very same chickenpox virus, which is never fully eradicated by the body in most people. There’s a vaccine for that, too, which also doesn’t provide 100 percent protection but which can prevent the worst effects of shingles.
Shingles also can cause a blistering rash, as well as a dreadful symptom called post-herpetic neuralgia, an often agonizing and often impossible-to-deaden stabbing pain in the affected nerves.