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The Link Between Shingles and Stroke

The Link Between Shingles and Stroke

Scientists, researchers, and physicians have suspected a link between shingles and stroke for some time, but ongoing studies had yet to deliver definitive proof — until now. 

In November 2022, the Journal of the American Heart Association published a study on “Herpes Zoster and Long-Term Risk of Cardiovascular Disease.” The findings affirmed what experts had sensed for some time: Shingles puts you at high risk for cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks. 

Here, Dr. Dinash Yanamadula explains what you need to know about the connection and how he can help you manage the complications of shingles. At Princeton Paine & Spine Institute in Lawrenceville and Edgewater, New Jersey, Dr. Yanamadula provides expert care for our patients who suffer from shingles-related postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). 

Shingles 101

If you had chickenpox as a child, the virus that caused it still lives dormant inside you. Later in life, the virus can reactivate and cause shingles, an extremely painful rash that affects your body, usually along the path of a certain nerve or set of nerves, often across the chest, back, or abdomen. 

You may experience blistering, pain, itching, and bright redness. Headaches, fever, and extreme fatigue are also common. Symptoms may last for several days and up to four weeks. In some cases, the shingles virus damages the nerves and leads to PHN. 

One in three people who have had chickenpox develop shingles later in life. If you’ve never had chickenpox or have been vaccinated for it, you won’t get shingles because the virus has never entered your body. 

What the research says about shingles and stroke

The Journal of the American Heart Association study followed patients for 16 years and found that adults who have had shingles are about 30% more likely to develop coronary artery disease or have a stroke than those who had never had shingles. The research also showed that the risk of these cardiovascular problems remains in effect for 12 years or more. 

The study didn’t include anyone with a history of heart problems, so the connection was clear. But why?

In October 2022, scientists concluded a study that may have found the answer. The research published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases points to plasma exosomes as the culprit behind the connection between shingles and stroke. 

Exosomes are little sacs inside your cells that contain DNA and RNA. This study identified inflammatory and prothrombotic proteins in the exosomes of people who had shingles. These proteins are responsible for how your blood clots, which is how shingles puts you at risk for a stroke.

Also, since the shingles virus (herpes zoster) is the only human virus known to replicate itself inside your arteries, it may damage your artery walls, affect your blood’s clotting ability, and dislodge plaques within your arteries, leading to stroke and heart attack.

How to protect yourself

You can help prevent shingles by getting the shingles vaccination after age 50.

If you develop shingles, you may be able to reduce the severity of the symptoms by taking an antiviral medication within the first three days.

However, if you’ve already had shingles, you’re at risk for stroke and heart attack. Researchers are still working on how to lower that risk.

Meanwhile, if a case of shingles has left you with PHN, Dr. Yanamadula can help ease the pain and other symptoms with nerve blocks, medication, cold therapy, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). 

To talk with Dr. Yanamadula about PHN, contact us online or by phone to schedule a consultation.

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