Heart Health

Updated 06 July 2017

Shingles boosts risk of heart attack and stroke

Shingles is a re-activation of the chickenpox virus, a condition that commonly affects older people.

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Most of us have chicken pox as children and assume that's the end of it. But many years later the disease can become reactivated as herpes zoster or shingles, caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV).   

Shingles is also called herpes "zoster", meaning "girdle" or "belt", which describes the appearance of the rash. Small blisters, resembling chickenpox, appear on the "girdle line". Eventually they fill with clear fluid, break and crust, before finally disappearing.

South Korean researchers recently found that besides the uncomfortable rash on the girdle line, those affected had an increased risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke.

Health24 previously reported that when VZV first enters the body, as it does in the case of 90% of all children, it leads to chickenpox. But the body is never totally rid of VZV, which belongs to a family of viruses known as the “herpes viruses” that become latent in their host after causing the first infection.

Ballooning risk for heart problems

Their study found that people with shingles saw an overall 41% higher risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attack or stroke, when compared to an age-matched control group that did not develop shingles.

The risk of stroke was 35% higher and heart attack 59% higher, said the report published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The riskiest period was the first year after infection, and the dangers appeared to decline after that.

Researchers also found the risk for stroke was highest in those under 40 years old.

The study was based on a medical database of 519 880 patients whose records were tracked from 20032013.

Link still unclear

Researchers are unclear why shingles would boost the risk of cardiovascular problems, and said more study is needed.

"While these findings require further study into the mechanism that causes shingles patients to have an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, it is important that physicians treating these patients make them aware of their increased risk," said study author Sung-Han Kim, a physician in the department of infectious diseases at Asan Medical Center in Seoul.

Prevalence of shingles

Nearly one in three people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The infection, which may cause blisters, rash and shooting pain, can affect anyone who has had chickenpox.

Shingles can be spread through direct contact with the rash, but not by air.

A vaccine against shingles is available and is recommended for people 60 and older.

Read more:

Approximately 90% of adults are at risk for shingles

Shingles vaccine is safe

People with shingles have a higher stroke risk