Not only do shingles flare-ups hurt, research says they can increase your short-term risk of heart attack and stroke following the virus’ outbreak.
Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) was found to raise the risk of stroke by 35% and the risk of heart attack by nearly 60%, according to a study of more than half a million people. The risk of stroke was highest in those under age 40.
“It’s been known for a while now that zoster causes stroke,” said Dr. Gwen Wigand-Bolling, an internist at Novant Health Forsyth Internal Medicine. “The inflammation it creates causes heart attack and stroke, and shingles causes increased blood clotting in the arteries,” she added.
The risks of both stroke and heart attack were highest in the first year after the onset of shingles and decreases with time, researchers said.
Who is at risk for shingles?
About 1 in 3 Americans will develop shingles in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Cases are more common in older adults, but doctors say even children get shingles.
Shingles is caused by varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (inactive) in their body. The virus can reactivate later, causing shingles.
"Not everyone who had chickenpox will develop shingles," Wigand-Bolling noted.
Two other things to keep in mind: You cannot get shingles from someone who has shingles, the CDC says. However, you can get chickenpox from someone who has shingles if you've never had chickenpox or never received the chickenpox vaccine.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Shingles presents itself as a painful rash or blisters but the first signs of the condition can appear as a burning or tingling pain or itch on only one side of the body. Usually, shingles will appear around the waist, chest, stomach, back or on the face. Some people may also experience symptoms associated with a general infection such as fatigue, fever and headache.
“Shingles is extremely painful," Wigand-Bolling said. “On a scale from one to 10, most patients will say the pain ranges from six to 10.”
Between 1 and 5 days after the first symptoms occur, a rash will develop in the affected area. The rash will form blisters similar to chickenpox, but clustered in one area of body rather than scattered all over. The blisters generally scab over within 7 to 10 days and fully clears up within 2 to 4 weeks, the CDC says.
Most people who develop shingles have only one episode during their lifetime. However, doctors say you can have shingles more than once.
“Once a person has shingles, there is a 1 to 4% chance that individual would have a second occurrence of shingles,” Wigand-Bolling said.
Is the condition curable?
There is no cure for shingles, but attacks can be rendered less severe and their duration shortened with the use of prescription antiviral drugs.
Several antiviral medicines—acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir—are available to treat shingles and shorten the length and severity of the illness. These medicines are most effective if you start taking them as soon as possible after the rash appears. If you think you have shingles, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible to discuss treatment.
Pain medicine, either over-the-counter or a prescription from your doctor, may help relieve the pain caused by shingles. Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths (a lukewarm bath mixed with ground up oatmeal) can also help relieve itching.
Focus on prevention, doctors say
Prevention is the best way to avoid a shingles episode.
There is a vaccine that prevents the onset of shingles in people exposed to chickenpox. The CDC recommends that people age 60 and older get one dose of the vaccine. Vaccines are readily available at a doctor’s office and drug stores. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration extended the vaccine use for people aged 50 to 59.
Wigand-Bolling said the vaccine reduces the incidence of shingles by 51% and the neuralgia associated with shingles by 67%. The doctor said the vaccine is injected and once vaccinated a person is protected for life.
“Unless contraindicated because of pregnancy or being an organ transplant recipient or on chemotherapy, everyone over age 50 should be vaccinated,” Wigand-Bolling said. “I would recommend getting vaccinated to patients who may not have had chicken pox, or those who don’t remember having chicken pox.”
More than 90% of those identified in the study at increased risk of stroke and heart attack after a shingles episode hadn't been vaccinated for shingles. The people in the study who had the vaccine still got shingles, it's worth noting.