Shingles, that fiery and painful rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, not only causes acute discomfort, but also it brings with it a higher risk of heart attack or mild stroke later in life.

A new study published in the online issue of Neurology revealed that the risk of a heart attack or a mild stroke is present even two decades after the rash recedes.

Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes the chickenpox. An outbreak of shingles manifests in the skin as a painful rash which, if left untreated, can lead to further infection. But even after treatment and the symptoms have already disappeared, the virus remains in the nerve roots of people who have had the chickenpox, especially if they have a weakened immune system due to age, stress or poor health. Potentially anyone who has had chickenpox at any point in their lives can have an outbreak of shingles later on in life.

The study assessed data on 106,000 patients with shingles and 213,200 patients who had not. The British researchers reviewed patient records for an average of six years after a shingles diagnosis, and some medical histories go on for as long as 24 years. The projections for patients who have had the shingles were determined after taking into account the traditional risk factors such as obesity, smoking, hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

The study found out that those who suffer a case of the shingles between the age of 18 and 40 are 74 percent more likely to have a stroke, Patients under 40 who have had the shingles were also 2.4 times more likely to have a warning stroke and 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack compared with those who have not had shingles.

Those above age 40 still face a 10 percent higher chance of having a heart attack compared with those in the same age group who have not had the shingles. They also carry a 15 percent chance of having a transient ischaemic attack.

The study was led Dr. Judith Breuer from the University College London. She said, "Anyone with shingles, and especially younger people, should be screened for stroke risk factors." Breuer mentions that the although the shingles vaccine significantly reduced the number of cases of shingles by about half, studies still need to be conducted to find out whether these vaccines can actually help reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack in people who have had the shingles as well.

"However," she explains, "what is also clear is that factors that increase the risk of stroke also increase the risk of shingles, so we do not know id vaccinating people can reduce the risk of stroke per se."

Currently, there is no cure for the disease, and it usually takes from 7 to 10 days for the painful rash to subside and fully heal. One of the complications of the disease is postherpetic neuralgia, which causes severe nerve pain for up to three months after the rash has subsided.

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