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Does a Shingles Infection Increase Your Risk of Stroke?

The World Health Organization is warning that adults infected with the shingles virus may be at greater risk of having a stroke!

The WHO warning is based on a new study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, which details the mechanisms behind the link between shingles and strokes.

“Most people know about the painful rash associated with shingles, but they may not know that the risk of stroke is elevated for a year after infection,” said the study’s lead author Andrew Bubak, Ph.D., assistant research professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Importantly, the rash is often completely healed, and individuals feel normal but nonetheless are walking around with this significant elevation in stroke risk.”

Herpes zoster (HZ) or shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chicken pox. The virus lingers in the ganglionic neurons and can reactivate, causing excruciating pain.

But researchers have found that shingles can also increase the risk of stroke, especially for those under age 40, where the shingles vaccine is not typically recommended.

The risk is greatest in people with rashes on their faces, perhaps due to the proximity to the brain.

To better understand how this works, Bubak and his team began looking more closely at exosomes. Exosomes are lipid vesicles that shuttle proteins and genetic information between cells.

“Exosomes carry pathogenic cargo that can cause thrombosis and inflammation distant from the site of actual infection,” Bubak said. “That could ultimately lead to a stroke in patients.”

Most physicians are unaware of the connection between shingles — which has an effective vaccine — and stroke. The WHO says that this study is yet another reason that older people should get the shingles shot.

The CDC recommends two doses of recombinant zoster vaccine (RZV, Shingrix) to prevent shingles and related complications in adults 50 years and older.

Shingrix is also recommended for adults 19 years and older who have weakened immune systems because of disease or therapy.

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