Health & Fitness

Shingles Risk for Older Adults Who’ve Had COVID-19

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People over the age of 50 have a higher risk of shingles due to the aging of their immune system. Dimitrije Tanaskovic/Stocksy United Photo
  • Researchers say people over the age of 50 who have had COVID-19 have a 15 percent higher risk of shingles.
  • They add that older adults hospitalized for COVID-19 have a 21 percent greater risk of shingles.
  • Experts say one factor is the immune system of older adults isn’t always as strong as it used to be.
  • They recommend people over the age of 50 get vaccinated against COVID-19 and shingles.

Older adults who contract COVID-19 also may be at higher risk of developing shingles, a viral illness caused by the chickenpox virus.

Experts say weakening of the immune system by the novel coronavirus can trigger an outbreak of shingles, which typically lies dormant for years after a case of chickenpox, which is caused by the varicella-zoster virus.

A study published by researchers affiliated with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline — which makes the shingles vaccine Shingrix as well as developing vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments for COVID-10 — found that participants over age 50 who had the novel coronavirus were at a 15 percent higher risk of developing shingles.

Researchers were following up on anecdotal reports of shingles cases closely following COVID-19 cases. The study drew on the medical records of nearly 2 million people with and without COVID-19.

The researchers said individuals who required hospitalization for COVID-19 had a 21 percent higher risk of contracting shingles.

The elevated risk of shingles among people who’ve had COVID-19 only seemed to last for the first six months after contracting the disease, according to researchers led by Amit Bhavsar, the director of clinical research and development at GlaxoSmithKline.

“More than half of the described HZ cases occurred within 1 week after COVID-19 diagnosis or hospitalization, but some cases were also reported after 8–10 weeks,” the study authors wrote.

“All kinds of illnesses can trigger shingles,” Dr. Linda Yancey, an infectious disease expert at Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston, told Healthline.

She noted that varicella-zoster virus is in the same family as herpes, Epstein-Barr, and Cytomeglo virus, which can cause mononucleosis.

“Once we pick up any of these viruses they stay with us for a lifetime and can reactivate when we are under stress,” said Yancey. “As we age, our immune systems age as well and it becomes easier for the virus to reactivate and cause a shingles outbreak. Any illness, including COVID, can cause a shingles outbreak. So, this is a very expected result.”

Taking COVID-19 out of the equation, researchers also found that the risk of shingles was higher among women, people over age 65, and those who generally incur higher healthcare costs.

“Older individuals are more likely to have a poor outcome with COVID-19 infection,” Dr. Sanjiv S. Shah, the chief medical officer of MetroPlusHealth, told Healthline. “They are also more prone to experience symptoms after their initial recovery from COVID-19 infection, so-called post-COVID-19 syndrome.”

“Their ordeal and delayed recovery will only worsen if they also get shingles,” added Shah.

Even after the painful shingles rash disappears, “the affected area of the skin can remain painful, often for months to years,” a condition known as post-shingles neuralgia, he added.

Experts said that vaccination is the best protection against both COVID-19 and shingles The shingles vaccine is particularly recommended for people over age 50.

“Severe COVID can be deadly and severe shingles can cause pain, scarring, or sometimes blindness,” said Yancey. “One does not make the other worse except that COVID can trigger shingles. You really don’t want to get either one and we have vaccines against both.”

Everyone over 50, and anyone 19 to 50 who has had an episode of shingles or is immunocompromised, should get both doses of the shingles vaccine as well as all recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, said Yancey.

Dr. Naheed A. Ali, a healthcare writer and contributor to USARx.com, told Healthline that a COVID-19 case or having the immune response bolstered by a COVID-19 vaccination could possibly trigger an outbreak of shingles, although such occurrences are relatively rare.

“Even if there is a correlation, it’s an uncommon side effect with benefits outnumbering any potential risks,” said Ali. “It should also be noted that COVID-19 vaccines do not cause shingles and one will not acquire shingles directly from a COVID-19 vaccine. If these events are related, they’ll only happen in individuals with dormant [varicella-zoster virus] acquired by prior chickenpox or shingle cases.”

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