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Rheumatoid Arthritis Sufferers May Be at Risk for Shingles

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation to the joints and the tissues surrounding the joints, and may even cause damage to bodily organs.  RA sufferers often turn to pharmaceutical drugs to manage their arthritis pain and discomfort.  However, you may experience a different kind of discomfort: Shingles.  A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that while some of the drugs used to treat RA symptoms are effective, they may be causing an outbreak of Shingles.  Shingles is caused by the same virus that produces Chickenpox, the Varicella Zoster virus.  Shingles is also referred to as the Herpes Zoster virus; however it is not related to the sexually transmitted disease or herpes of the mouth.  When you are infected with Chickenpox, usually as a child, the virus continues to live dormant in the nervous system.  As we age, usually into our 60’s, we are at a higher risk for the virus to reactivate.  It can also be awakened through periods of stress, a lowered immune system, or while going through invasive therapies, such as Chemotherapy.


The study conducted at the Rheumatism Research Centre in Berlin, Germany determined that Anti-TNF (anti-tumor necrosis factor alpha) therapy drugs may lower the immune system of RA patients, thereby leaving your body susceptible to a Shingles outbreak.  Anti-TNF-a-agents, such as Humira, Kineret, and Remicade may double your risk of developing Shingles.  The study also showed that steroidal hormones that are often used by RA sufferers as an anti-inflammatory aid, taken in unison with the Anti-TNF drugs, furthered the risk of the virus.  If you have had a case of Shingles in the past, not Chickenpox, you are at an even higher risk of developing the infection.  If you are taking Anti-TNF drugs, your doctor should explain the signs and symptoms of Shingles to you, so you are better able to detect them if you are infected with the unwanted virus. 


The early signs of Shingles can be closely associated with arthritis pain.  The first sign of Shingles is usually burning pain and sensitivity, with no visible signs to explain it.  After a few days, a rash will appear, followed by small blisters.  New blisters will form for about 3-5 days.  The blisters may pop and ooze, and they need to be cleansed to avoid infection.  The blisters will begin to scab and heal over.  A Shingles episode can be expected to last a total of 3-4 weeks from beginning to end.  It is contagious to individuals that have not had Chickenpox, so avoid those that have not had the virus, especially small children.  It is not contagious to people who have had Chickenpox.  There is a Shingles vaccine, but research shows that the vaccine should not be given to people who are already taking Anti-TNF drugs.  Your doctor may want to give you the vaccine a couple weeks before starting the new drugs.