Showing skin at the beach when your body is covered in chickenpox may not sound like a great way to garner flattering remarks, but surprising new research out of the University of London may soon change that perception.


Scientists there have discovered that exposure to ultraviolet rays, such as those that bombard your body while sunbathing, may help to prevent the spread of diseases like chickenpox and shingles, according to


It has long been known that the varicella-zoster virus — the one that causes chickenpox and shingles — transmits far less frequently in tropical regions than it does in more temperate latitudes. Researchers have also long recognized that ultraviolet radiation was capable of deactivating many types of viruses. Until now, though, no studies had been performed that put two and two together.


Enter Dr. Phil Rice, virologist at St. George’s, University of London. Drawing from 25 studies on the geographical prevalence of the varicella-zoster virus, Rice was able to narrow down the list of potential explanations for the distribution of the virus' to one: ultraviolet (UV) rays.


"No one had considered UV as a factor before, but when I looked at the epidemiological studies, they showed a good correlation between global latitude and the presence of the virus," said Rice.


Rice was able to rule out other factors, such as differences in heat or humidity, by looking at geographical regions that represented an anomaly against the overall trend.


"One convincing factor of the hypothesis is that there was an explanation for every anomaly. For example, the peak incidence of chickenpox in India and Sri Lanka is during the hot, dry, sunny season. You would expect chickenpox to be at its lowest at this time, so at first this didn’t fit the theory. However, this was explained because UV rays are actually much lower in the dry season compared with the monsoon period. In the dry season, the pollution in the atmosphere reflects the UV rays back into space before they reach us. But in monsoon season, the rains wash away the pollution, meaning the UV rays can get through."


Does this mean that sunbathing while infected with chickenpox can help to make you less contagious? It's certainly possible — though this study is far from adequate in determining just how much sun exposure that would require. Rice points out that further studies are needed about how UV rays prevent the spread of the virus before any treatments can be recommended.


It's also worth noting that too much exposure to the sun can lead to sunburn and skin cancer, so for now it's probably best to leave the experimenting to the scientists.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Can sunbathing help to prevent the spread of chickenpox?
The discovery that ultraviolet rays help to prevent the spread of chickenpox could lead to new forms of treatment.