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Shingles Increases Risk of Stroke and Heart Attack

New research indicates older people who develop shingles face a short-term increase in their risk for having a stroke or heart attack. The study, published in the December 15, 2005 issue of PLOS Medicine, included approximately 43,000 Medicare recipients diagnosed with both shingles and a stroke and another 24,000 shingles patients who experienced a heart attack between 2006 and 2011.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom discovered the risk of stroke was much greater during the three months after the onset of shingles, including more than twice as high during the first week. The risk of heart attack also doubled during the first week after symptoms developed and remained high, but not by quite as much as the risk for stroke. The risk for both appeared to return to normal within six months.

While this is not the first study of the effects of shingles with cardiovascular risks, it is important because it identifies the far greater risk during the first week following the onset of shingles symptoms.

More than a million Americans a year develop shingles, according to the Centers for Disease Control. If you had chickenpox, you have a risk of getting shingles, since the virus stays in your body even after you recover from chickenpox. It appears most often in people over 50 years old and people with weakened immune systems. Shingles are typically diagnosed after the onset of tingling pain, mild to serious burning sensations and a blistering rash on one side of the body. Most people who get shingles will recover in two to four weeks. Generally, people will not get shingles more than once, although it is possible.

Pain medications are effective in relieving the pain of shingles, and antiviral medications can treat the rashes and blisters. In addition, Zostavax, a shingles vaccine, can reduce the shingles risk by roughly 50% or reducing symptom severity when shingles occurs. Because of the small number of people who had the shingles vaccine, the study was not able to identify whether it had any relationship in reducing the risk of stroke or heart attack in those who were vaccinated.

The physical connection between shingles and the causes for the increased stroke and heart attack risks are not known. However, there does not appear to be a direct cause and effect relationship between the virus and cardiovascular conditions. Researchers commented that possible reasons could include increased inflammation associated with a viral infection or increases in blood pressure associated with the pain or stress of the disease.

This new research is important, because it creates heightened awareness of the increased risk of stroke or heart attack following the onset of shingles. We recommend people with weakened immune systems or with existing heart attack or stroke risks who get the disease monitor their health carefully during and shortly after getting shingles. Being aware of and sharing information about the risks may save the life of someone you love.