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Shingles associated with short-term increased risk of stroke

The varicella zoster virus causes varicella, or chickenpox, before becoming latent in neurones. As immunity decreases in older and immunocompromised individuals, the virus reactivates to produce herpes zoster, or shingles. More than 95% of the world’s adult population is infected and up to one third will develop shingles in their lifetime.

An electron micrograph of the varicella zoster virus

Picture credit: Science Photo Library

This retrospective study compared adults over the age of 50 who had shingles with matched controls without the condition. Researchers found an increased risk of stroke and possibly myocardial infarction (MI) in the first 90 days after an episode of shingles, but no increase in risk after that time. The increased risk of stroke is probably due to varicella zoster virus infection in intracerebral arteries. Pathological changes include loss of smooth muscle cells, which may contribute to aneurysm formation and haemorrhagic stroke. Increased risk of MI may similarly be caused by virus infection of coronary arteries.

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