COVID-19 linked to increased risk of shingles, pharmaceutical company says

Shingles rash; Credit: Getty Images

Older people with a first diagnosis of COVID-19 are 15% more likely to develop shingles than their peers who have never been diagnosed with the disease, according to a study supported by vaccine maker GlaxoSmithKline.

The risk is even higher — at 21% — for older people hospitalized with COVID-19, investigators from the company, which makes the shingles vaccine Shingrix, have reported.

The researchers used US data, excluding anyone vaccinated against either disease. They found that the risk of shingles, also known as herpes zoster, remained elevated for up to six months after a diagnosis of COVID-19 for patients aged 50 and over. Notably, when analyzing the risk by age group, the elevated risk of shingles was only statistically higher in the 50-64 age group. The risk was present, but not statistically significant, in patients over 64 years of age.

The study is the first to show epidemiological evidence linking the two diseases, the researchers reported. Some have speculated that immune dysfunction caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection could trigger latent shingles, a virus that initially causes chickenpox.

Latent shingles in those who have had chickenpox can reappear as shingles in old age when the immune system naturally weakens. It’s possible that COVID-19 makes this more likely, the researchers wrote.

“Healthcare professionals should consider that COVID-19 may be a risk factor for shingles,” the researchers said. “Because shingles is a vaccine-preventable disease, maintaining the recommended shingles vaccination in[adults 50 years and older]may help reduce the burden of shingles during the pandemic,” they concluded.

Shingles is often accompanied by a painful rash and sometimes leads to lasting nerve damage.

The results were published in the journal Open Forum on Infectious Diseases.

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