Background: The last 40 years was a period during which the incidence of herpes zoster appears to have increased substantially.
Objective: To determine whether the risk of complications of herpes zoster has changed during the last 40 years.
Methods: The automated medical records of a health maintenance organization were screened for diagnosis codes suggesting herpes zoster and potentially complicated cases of zoster. The predictive value of a herpes zoster diagnosis was calculated from sampling full-text records. Records of all patients with codes suggesting complications were reviewed in full.
Results: Of 859 individuals with herpes zoster who met the eligibility criteria, 101 were identified who experienced at least 1 complication, corresponding to a 60-day risk of 12%. Corrected for the sensitivity of the complication-finding strategy, the risk estimate was 14%. Risk increased markedly with age, with those older than 64 years having more than 6 times the risk of complications of those younger than 25 years (odds ratio, 8.3; 95% confidence interval, 2.5-29.3). Trigeminal distribution of rash and the presence of certain conditions associated with immune compromise appeared to increase risk.
Conclusions: The apparent increase in the incidence of herpes zoster was not accompanied by a change in the risk of specific or overall complications in a population-based sample. Advanced age and other conditions associated with waning cellular immunity may confer an increased risk of experiencing a complicated course of herpes zoster.