A new study links the varicella zooster virus that causes chicken pox and shingles to a condition that inflames blood vessels on the temples and scalp in people over the age of 50-years, called giant cell arteritis. This condition can cause sudden blindness or stroke and can be life-threatening.
Study author Don Gilden said, "Our analysis, which is the largest to-date, provides compelling evidence that the virus also reactivates in people over 60 in another way, triggering giant cell arteritis. It is the most common type of inflammation of blood vessels in the elderly, affecting an estimated 29 out of 100,000 people. Symptoms include a new severe headache, scalp tenderness, jaw discomfort, blurred vision, fever, weight loss and tiredness. Importantly, the cause of this condition has been uncertain, prompting the present study."
Researchers examined for evidence of the virus in 13 temporal artery biopsies of people who died and had no previous symptoms of giant cell arteritis and in 84 temporal artery biopsies of people with giant cell arteritis. All the biopsies were from people over the age of 50-years. They found the virus in 74 percent of the biopsies with giant cell arteritis and in only 8 percent of the normal skin biopsies.
Gilden said, "If the association can be replicated in other studies, clinical trials should focus on treating people with giant cell arteritis with a combination of the current steroid drugs used for the condition, plus anti-viral treatment for the virus."
The study appears online in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.