A study recently published in Frontiers in Microbiology has highlighted an issue within the Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions that seems to be plaguing astronauts. According to the report, a small number of astronauts have noticed signs and symptoms around shingles, sometimes referred to as herpes zoster. News Medical reveals that this condition happens as a reactivation of dormant chickenpox for someone who has had this illness, which could prove to be a problem within a long space flight mission, as the condition is known to be quite painful; leading to blister-like lesions across a nerve, which is generally seen on the forehead, across the face, or on one side of the trunk.
The virus continues to be dormant for the entire life of someone who has had chicken pox, and can eventually re-appear in the form of shingles. Having said that, this shingles condition could pose a huge problem for astronauts as they endure weeks or months of microgravity exposure, as well as and cosmic radiation, not to mention the fact that re-entry and take-off exposes them to extreme G forces. This is also compounded by other stressor factors they deal with like: confinement, changes in sleep-wake cycle, as well as social separation. It’s an added weight on an already over-sized plate of issues astronauts navigate through when it comes to these missions.
The research team explains in the study that NASA watches the physiological effects of their astronauts very closely when it comes space flights. In fact, urine, blood, and saliva are monitored all throughout missions.
Additionally during flights, there is an increase in stress hormones secretions like adrenaline and cortisol, which are known to overpower one’s immune system. As such, while monitoring astronaut’s immune cells, especially those that generally eliminate or suppress infection, these tend to decrease in effectiveness during missions, and even up to two months after the fact.
Due to this, the astronauts find it difficult to keep dormant viruses from surfaces, and they are thus activated, which is why these space explorers are dealing with the shingles virus. Out of 89 astronauts 47 (53%) riding short space missions, and from 23, 14 (61%) on longer space flights, shed herpes virus via urine or saliva samples. Viral frequencies and quantities are significantly higher than samples take after or before flight. A mere six astronauts had symptoms as a result of viral reactivation, and all were minor cases.
The longer the flight, the more the virus reactivates, with frequency, magnitude, and duration around viral shedding all enhanced as per the length of the mission.