Herpes zoster, also referred to as shingles, is an awful, painful skin condition in adults caused by the chickenpox virus, varicella-zoster virus. A new study by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital has found that shingles is linked to an increased long-term risk of major adverse cardiovascular events, including stroke and heart attacks. 

Their findings also reveal that the increased risk could linger for 12 years and perhaps longer. And is mostly higher among those with a poor weakened immune system or specific medication use.

With the little data on the long-term link between herpes zoster and cardiovascular events, particularly in the US population, the researchers were driven to investigate whether those who have suffered shingles earlier were at an increased risk of stroke and coronary heart disease many years after. The study is significant as it could help tackle the burden of shingles infection as well as help draft out preventative health measures against subsequent cardiovascular complications.

Study Methodology 

The study which was published in the journal of the American Heart Association followed over 200,000 women and men in three large US cohort studies. Participants were made to fill out questionnaires from the start of the study and every 2 years. They gathered information on their history of shingles, stroke, and coronary heart disease. The team ruled out study participants with a history of stroke or coronary heart disease. In addition, they assessed their medical records concerning the diagnosis of shingles to confirm the information filled out in the questionnaires. Meanwhile, their diet information was gathered every 4 years using a food-frequency questionnaire.

Results

During an average follow-up of 16 years, the study authors found that people who had previously had the shingles virus during childhood were at roughly 30 percent increased long-term risk of a major cardiovascular event than those with no prior history of shingles infection.

It is worth noting that shingles could appear anywhere in the head or body and come in the form of a red, painful blistering rash. Those who have had chickenpox growing up have the varicella-zoster virus inside of them that is capable of staying inactive for decades. In certain cases, the virus could become active more specifically in those above 50 or those with a weakened immune system and appears as shingles.

One may experience a common complication of shingles called Postherpetic neuralgia which comes off as an intense pain even after the rash has worn off. The study authors explain that the virus resides in the blood vessels and could alter the vasculature and lead to inflammation that could restrict the flow of blood as well as increase obstruction of the blood vessels — causing a cardiovascular event to rise.

Researchers state that about 1 in 3 persons will develop the shingles virus during their lifetime with the possibility of the number rising as the population ages and the number of those with weakened immune systems and medication use rises.

Despite the results, however, timing may be a major limitation on the outcome of this study. The major reason being for the wide availability and accessibility of vaccines way after much of the study had already commenced. Although the number of people that opted for the shingles vaccine was generally still low, the researchers can not account for whether being vaccinated could influence the long-term risk of stroke or heart attack. They, therefore, see the need for further studies to evaluate this relationship. 

All things considered, this study emphasizes the long-term implications of the shingles virus as well as the importance of public health efforts to aid prevention. 

Written by

Medically Reviewed by