Shingles May Increase Risk of Heart Attack

March 10, 2014
Doctors need to know if a patient has had shingles before.

Doctors need to know if a patient has had shingles before.

Those taking care of elderly individuals may want to see whether shingles has been a part of their loved ones’ medical history. A new study in the journal Neurology indicates that there could be a link between shingles and later cardiac issues, such as heart attacks.

The risk

A British study entitled “Herpes zoster as a risk factor for stroke and TIA” looked at more than 100,000 people who had had the herpes zoster virus (shingles) at some point in their lives. According to the study, a person who has had shingles has a 10% greater risk of later suffering from a heart attack and a 15% greater risk of a later mini-stroke. The timing of the shingles may also be important. The study looked further into the data and found that the risks are even greater if shingles occurs before age 40. In these cases, a person’s risk of stroke is almost two and a half times as great; the risk of a mini-stroke is almost 50% greater, and the risk of a heart attack is 74% greater.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a common viral disease caused by the varicella zoster virus, which is what causes chicken pox. After a person gets over chicken pox, he or she still has the virus in his system, and it can recur as herpes zoster, the official name for shingles. It’s usually a painful skin rash that may include blisters and generally breaks out only on one side of the body. The virus may remain dormant in the body for years or even decades; some people never get a recurrence and some people get multiple recurrences. Herpes zoster, by the way, is not the same as herpes simplex, the disorder that is popularly just called herpes.

What to do

This study is one of several that indicate a link between shingles and cardiovascular issues; therefore, if you are taking care of elderly patients, it is important to find out whether such ones have ever had shingles and, if so, to bring this information to the attention of a doctor. Since shingles may have occurred many years in the past, the patient may not remember whether he or she has had shingles. Getting access to earlier medical records or asking other family members may help to determine whether there is a history of shingles. Doctors should take steps to monitor for possible cardiovascular issues in patients who have had shingles. Those taking care of elderly individuals who have not had shingles should discuss with a doctor whether these individuals should have a shingles vaccine; many doctors routinely recommend this for their senior patients. It’s worth noting that an increased risk does not mean that a person who has had shingles will have a heart attack or stroke; it merely means that such ones need to exercise caution and take steps to avoid any such events.

Writer, Craig Butler

Craig Butler has been writing on a wide range of topics for more than fifteen years. As the National Communications Director for the Cooley's Anemia Foundation, Craig regularly writes on a range of health and medical topics. Among the many projects he has written for the Foundation is the Cooley's Anemia Storybook, a collection of original short stories for children with the blood disorder Cooley's Anemia. His freelance work has ranged from reviewing moves and CDs to creating entertainment-related stories about baldness, to creating text for comic strips. Craig looks forward to having a dialogue with you about senior care and issues of concern.

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