IhorL/Shutterstock, SneSivan/ShutterstockYou feel so lousy that you suspect the flu, except it’s way past flu season. And then there’s that rash—an ugly strip of red, pimply-looking blisters just below your rib cage that hurts like crazy. You could try identifying that rash with this guide to most common skin irritations, but it sounds like you could have shingles, and the news just got worse: An outbreak may mean you’re at a higher risk for heart attack and stroke, according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in the body and can reactivate years later. Shingles is common enough that one in every three people in the United States will develop the infection at some point in their lifetime; your risk increases after the age of 50, or any time your immune system is compromised. In addition, it appears that women are more prone to the condition than men, according to the South Korean researchers behind the study.
Sifting through data on 519,880 patients registered with the National Health Insurance Services, the researchers found 23,233 cases of shingles. After comparing them to shingles-free patients, the researchers discovered that a bout of shingles was linked to a 59 percent increased risk of heart attack and 35 percent higher risk of stroke. The danger was greatest in first year after the onset of shingles, and then risk decreased over time. Notably patients with shingles also tended to have more of the general risk factors for heart attack and stroke, such as old age, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol—meaning their health status could have made them more susceptible to a shingles outbreak. On the other hand, they were less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise, had a lower alcohol intake, and tended to be part of a higher socioeconomic class than the shingles-free people in the study. Interestingly, among those who had shingles, risk of having a heart attack or stroke was highest under 40 years of age, when the under-40 crowd is generally at lower risk for heart disease in a general population.
Clearly, the findings require further study, Sung-Han Kim, MD, PhD, a physician in the department of infectious diseases at Asian Medical Center in Seoul and one of the study authors, told Science Daily. However, the findings build on prior research linking shingles and heart disease risk, so it’s something doctors need to be aware of and warn patients about, says Dr. Kim.
Whether you’ve had shingles or not, here are some ways to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.