Can shingles kill you?

A case of the shingles at a young age can come back to haunt you later in life in the form of a potentially deadly stroke or heart attack. According to a British study, people under 40 years of age have a 74% greater risk of having a stroke if they have had shingles previously. Moreover, they are more than twice as likely to have a warning stroke and 50% more likely to suffer a heart attack. The risk is lower in people older than 40 years; they have 15% more chances of having a warning stroke (transient ischemic attack), and a 10% greater risk of a heart attack.

The English researchers, who published their study in the online version of the journal Neurology, considered over 100,000 individuals who had had shingles, and over 200,000 who hadn’t. They concluded that people between the ages of 18 and 40 who had shingles were at a greater risk of a warning stroke, stroke, and heart attack, even after adjusting for other related risk factors, including smoking, high cholesterol, and obesity. The association between shingles and stroke and heart attack risk had been made before though.

Back in October 2009, The American Heart Association published a study in its journal Stroke in which shingles affecting the eyes was deemed an increased risk for stroke in adults. Those adults who had experienced the virus were approximately 30% more likely to have a stroke within one year after the attack, as compared to those who didn’t have shingles. And those who had the rash in and around the eyes saw their risk for stroke in the same time period multiplied by four. These are just a couple of studies of many which have established the connection, though attending physician in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Taipei Medical University Hospital Dr. Jiunn-Horng Kang claims that theirs was the first to actually confirm the link.

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, also known as herpes zoster, and its symptoms include      pain, burning, numbness or tingling; a red rash that begins a few days after the pain; fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over; itching;  fever and chills; general soreness; headache; and fatigue. Medications and creams are among the products used to treat shingles. Herpes zoster already has serious complications such as postherpetic neuralgia (pain after the blisters have cleared), vision loss (once again in cases of shingles in and around the eyes), neurological problems (encephalitis, facial paralysis, or hearing or balance problems), and skin infections. It hasn’t been established yet why shingles can trigger strokes and heart issues, though inflammation to the circulatory system has been suggested.

However, it is clear that, as British study leader Dr. Judith Breuer points out, anyone with shingles, younger people in particular, should be screened for stroke risk factors. Cardiologist and chief medical officer at Virginia Heart in Northern Virginia Dr. Warren Levy adds that patients who have had herpes zoster might have to be treated more aggressively for heart attack and stroke prevention. People who have had chickenpox need be careful as well, since the same virus that causes shingles also causes chickenpox, and anyone who’s had shingles may develop shingles too.

The real conundrum however may be in the fact that shingles, along with its corresponding vaccine, are more often than not paired with people over 50. The shot has been proven to lower the cases of shingles by half, but before the herpes zoster vaccine can be recommended for younger people, there needs to be more research in order to establish whether it can have a similar effect in decreasing the occurrence of strokes and heart attacks. 

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