Shingles tied to increased risk of stroke, heart attack

Having shingles, a painful rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, seems to increase an older person’s risk of a stroke or heart attack, especially during the first week after a shingles diagnosis, according to new research published in PLOS Medicine journal.

The risk of stroke more than doubles in the first seven days and can remain high for up to three months. The risk of heart attack follows the same pattern, although not as high as stroke risk.

Interestingly, all risk rates seem to return to normal within six months or less.

“Possible reasons might include the overall higher level of inflammation in the body associated with a viral infection, or [virus-induced] blood vessel damage," said lead author Caroline Minassian, PhD, a research fellow in the faculty of epidemiology and population health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in England, in a MedlinePlus release. "Acute increases in blood pressure relating to shingles-associated pain or stress may also play a role."

The study is the first to identify a clear association between early onset shingles and risk of stroke and heart attacks, which may lead physicians and caregivers to develop closer monitoring of seniors who develop shingles. "If we know when these events are more likely to happen, this may potentially help to prevent strokes and heart attacks in older people," Minassian said.

Anyone who has contracted chickenpox, even in childhood, has encountered the varicella zoster virus and can develop shingles, which manifests and a burning, tingling rash, most commonly on the side of the torso, the back or the forehead.

Topics: Clinical