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Shingles significantly increases risk of suffering stroke

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study confirms link between shingles and stroke

People who get shingles are more likely to have a stroke, according to the largest study of its kind, which confirmed a link had been found.

The study, published in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that having shingles increased the risk for having a stroke and a mini-stroke (also known as a TIA, or transient ischemic attack).

Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Almost 1 out of 3 people will develop shingles in the United States, and anyone who has ever had chickenpox is at risk.

The study found that people under age 40 who’ve had shingles have a 74 percent increased risk of having a stroke than those who have not had the rash.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), after a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in the body in a dormant state, where it remains inactive.

However, for reasons that are still not clearly understood, the virus can reactivate years later; thus, causing shingles. The virus that causes shingles and chickenpox is not the same virus that causes genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease.

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Anyone who has had shingles should be screened for risk factors for stroke, especially those who are younger, advises study author Dr. Judith Breuer of University College London in the UK, who is pushing for such monitoring.

A shingles vaccine is also available, which has been found to cut the number of shingles cases in half, but whether the vaccine also cuts the risk of stroke remains unknown.

The CDC currently recommends that all people age 60 years and older get the shingles vaccine, which is also called the herpes zoster vaccine.

Dr. Breuer says that the role for vaccination in younger people who have risk factors for stroke needs to be assessed. She also says that multiple factors can raise the risk of stroke, independent of shingles.

"What is also clear is that factors that increase the risk of stroke also increase the risk of shingles, so we do not know if vaccinating people can reduce the risk of stroke per se."

The researchers point to earlier studies showing that the varicella-zoster virus affecting the ophthalmic branch of the facial nerve had spread to cerebral arteries in people with shingles who later suffered a stroke.

There have been similar findings with the shingles virus and artery damage.

SOURCE: Herpes zoster as a risk factor for stroke and TIA: A retrospective cohort study in the UK. Neurology 2014, volume 82, pages 1-7. Published online before print January 2, 2014.