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Shingles can increase risk of heart attack, stroke, study says

By Melissa Healy

Los Angeles Times

LAST UPDATED: 04:21 a.m. HST, Jan 03, 2014

As if the fiery rash and painful blisters of shingles were not punishment enough, the average patient who suffers a resurgence of the dormant chickenpox virus known as herpes zoster — or shingles the blisters and rash recede, says a new study.

For those who suffer a case of shingles between the ages of 18 and 40, the outlook is worse: They're more than twice as likely to suffer a mild stroke and 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who have not had shingles.

British researchers calculated these increased average risks even after taking account of subjects' cardiovascular risks, such as smoking, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and worrisome cholesterol readings. In other words, all other things being equal, a case of shingles in your medical history puts you at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

Writing in the journal Neurology, the British authors of the latest report say the findings strengthen the suspicion that once unleashed as shingles, the herpes zoster virus may plant seeds of destruction in some of the body's blood vessels which could take years to wreak havoc. They suggest that the herpes zoster may be an underappreciated contributor to the incidence of cardiovascular disease in a population. For untold numbers, they suggest, the disease process that ends in a heart attack or stroke may have started with a mild or asymptomatic case of herpes zoster infection.

That would be a particularly sneaky trick for a virus already known for lying in wait for years to attack. Left behind when an individual is infected with wild-type chickenpox, the herpes zoster virus settles in and eludes detection by the immune system by lying dormant. Typically decades later, when a person who had chickenpox has some dip in immune resistance, the virus travels along a sensory nerve to the skin, where it can replicate and cause painful, burning rashes and blisters. The nerve inflammation it causes can persist for weeks and even months, and for an unlucky few, the resulting nerve damage can bring unrelenting pain.

It's been known that when the shingles virus travels along the opthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve in the face, and affects the area surrounding an eye, the patient has a nearly five-fold risk of stroke in the year following. But over as many as 23 years, shingles patients followed in the current study had 14 percent more heart attacks and roughly 16 percent more mild strokes than matched subjects who had not had shingles.

The findings raise the possibility that getting the shingles vaccine could for many head off a slide toward cardiovascular disease. But other studies will be needed to test that proposition, the authors acknowledged.

In the meantime, they suggested, the shingles vaccine could be offered to any patients that are at risk of cardiovascular disease in a bid to reduce their risk factors. And patients who've had shingles before age 40 might be treated more aggressively to drive down heart attack and stroke risk, and urged to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

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manakuke wrote:
The virus ‘hides’. Childhood exposure means greater risk when it resurfaces in the older individual.
on January 3,2014 | 05:07AM
cojef wrote:
Had a mild case of the shingles in my 60's and it was centered on the upper right side of my head from above the eyebrow to about midway to the ear, about a palm-sized in area, that was sensitive to touch. Fortunately the intense pain lasted about 2 weeks and finally disappeared. Know of a woman co-worker who suffered attacks of pain for over 6 months and often did not show-up for work due to the intense pain in the affected area, around the belt-line from the front, backward around her buttocks and partly up her back. Was sensitive to clothing at that time. My better half had similar pains only for short duration, roughly about a month. Wouldn't wish on on anyone.
on January 3,2014 | 08:17AM
aloha101 wrote:
Had shingles on my back (just the size of a 50-cent coin) in my late 60's and it was the most excruciating pain ever experienced in my life. Fortunately, went to the doctor within 48 hours of discovery and was given antibiotics for shingles and it only lasted about 1 - 2 weeks. My sister had shingles on her thigh in her early 70's and hers lasted about a month. Another sister had it twice, once in her 40's and again last year.
on January 3,2014 | 11:33AM
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