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Getting shingles may increase your risk of heart attack or stroke by nearly 40%, according to new research out of South Korea. The study was led by Sung-Han Kim, Ph.D., from the Department of Infectious Diseases at Asan Medical Center in Seoul, South Korea. The results of the study are published in a recent edition of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Shingles—also known as herpes zoster—is caused by the varicella zoster virus, and appears as a painful skin rash. It’s caused by the same virus responsible for chickenpox, which remains dormant in your nerve roots after the childhood condition has cleared up. While for many people varicella zoster never re-awakens, in others, the virus becomes active again after something weakens the immune system. Once re-activated, this virus can only cause shingles, not chickenpox.
The study followed 519,880 patients with newly diagnosed shingles, stroke, and heart attack over the course of ten years (2003 to 2013). During this time, there were 23,233 cases of shingles. The researchers note that people who developed the condition were more likely to already have many common risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. They were also more likely to be older, and to be female. However, they were less likely to smoke, drank less alcohol, got more exercise, and were in a higher socioeconomic group than those who did not get the painful rash.
The study found that having shingles was associated with a 35% increased risk of stroke, a 59% risk of heart attack, and a 41% increased risk of heart-related issues. Interestingly, the increased risk for stroke was highest for people age 40 and under. The risks for heart attack and stroke were at their highest during the first year after shingles diagnosis, and decreased every year afterwards. This connection may be due to the causal relationship between inflammation and blood clotting, though more research is needed to confirm the study’s findings and fully understand the connection between the varicella zoster virus and cardiovascular events.
This potential link emphasizes the importance of herpes zoster vaccinations, especially for individuals with immunodeficiency or pre-existing health conditions. In the US, the vaccine (Zostavax) is recommended for people age 60 and over.
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