Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is not uncommon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate one out of every three people will develop the condition in his or her lifetime.
However, many people may be unaware that shingles can cause symptoms in the mouth.
“Since the virus lives on the sensory nerves, it can manifest any place on the body, including the mouth,” says Dr. Charles Wakefield, professor and director of the Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency Program at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry.
Anyone who has had chickenpox has the potential to develop shingles, because even after recovering from chickenpox, the virus settles in the nerve roots, where it remains for life. According to Dr. Wakefield, people whose immune system is weakened because of aging, cancer or certain drugs have an increased risk the virus will become active again, resulting in shingles.
“Patients affected with shingles in the mouth might lose their sense of taste, and they can have scarring on the tissue inside the mouth,” Dr. Wakefield says. “Shingles also can lead to severe pulp (nerve) pain and death in the teeth.”
There is no way to determine whether or not a person will develop shingles. Dr. Wakefield suggests patients who have developed oral complications of shingles should practice good oral hygiene even though it may be painful.
“They should rinse the mouth with 0.12 percent chlorhexidine in addition to taking the medication prescribed by their doctor,” he says.