PhotoHaving shingles, a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, is bad enough. But researchers now suggest that having this condition early in life may increase the risk of having a stroke later in life.

Writing in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, the international team of medical researchers said people between the ages of 18 and 40 who suffered from shingles had increased risk of stroke, heart attack or transient ischemic attack, also called a TIA or warning for a stroke, years later than people who had not had shingles. Shingles sufferers over 40 were more likely to have heart problems but not a stroke. 

"Anyone with shingles, and especially younger people, should be screened for stroke risk factors," said Judith Breuer, MD, of University College London. "The shingles vaccine has been shown to reduce the number of cases of shingles by about 50 percent. Studies are needed to determine whether vaccination can also reduce the incidence of stroke and heart attack.”

Still a lot of questions

Researchers aren't sure why shingles would be linked to stroke and heart attacks but Breuer says the seemingly unrelated conditions share risk factors. She and her colleagues don't know if getting vaccinated against shingles also reduces chances of stroke and heart disease.

“Current recommendations are that anyone 60 years and older should be vaccinated,” she said. “The role for vaccination in younger individuals with vascular risk factors needs to be determined."

According to the Mayo Clinic, two vaccines are used to prevent shingles. The varicella vaccine (Varivax), also known as the chickenpox vaccine, has become a routine childhood immunization to prevent chickenpox. The vaccine is also recommended for adults who've never had chickenpox.

No guarantee

Though the vaccine doesn't guarantee you won't get chickenpox or shingles, Mayo Clinic specialists say it can reduce your chances of complications and reduce the severity of the disease.

There is also a shingles vaccine that you often see advertised a drug stores and health clinics. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of the varicella-zoster vaccine (Zostavax) for adults age 50 and older.

It's similar to the chickenpox vaccine, in that it doesn't guarantee you won't get shingles. But Mayo Clinic doctors say this vaccine will likely reduce the course and severity of the disease and reduce your risk of postherpetic neuralgia.

Painful condition

With or without heart complications, shingles alone is pretty bad. It causes painful blisters that can last up to a month. In extreme cases, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says nerve pain can last for months or even years after the rash goes away. Called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN, it is the most common complication of shingles.

Shingles can lead to other serious complications, including eye problems if the rash affects the skin around the eye. Pain from shingles has been described as excruciating, aching, burning, stabbing, and shock-like. It has been compared to the pain of childbirth or kidney stones. The CDC says the pain from shingles can cause depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, and weight loss.

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