Catching COVID-19 appears to increase an older person’s risk of developing a case of shingles.
Researchers found that people 50 and older who had a COVID infection were 15% more likely to develop shingles, compared to people who were never infected. That risk climbed to 21% in people hospitalized with a severe case of COVID.
“It is important that health care professionals and people 50-plus are aware of this potential increased risk so patients can be diagnosed and treated early if they develop shingles following COVID-19,” says lead researcher Dr. Amit Bhavsar, director of clinical research and development for the pharmaceutical company GSK in Brussels.
What is shingles?
Shingles is a painful skin rash that occurs in people who’ve previously had chicken pox.
The virus that causes chicken pox, varicella zoster, hides in people’s nerve cells after they’ve gotten over their initial case of the infectious disease, explains Dr. Carrie Kovarik, a professor of dermatology and medicine with the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
In some cases, varicella zoster will reemerge later in life and cause shingles, usually due to a faltering immune system.
“Your T-cells are what keep the chicken pox virus contained,” Kovarik says. “When your T-cells aren’t doing the job — you’d had an illness or you get stressed or you get old — the chicken pox virus can come out down the nerve and onto your skin. It can’t hold onto it any longer.”
Because of this, it makes sense that COVID could prompt shingles, since the virus wreaks such havoc on the immune system, Kovarik shares.
“I’ve definitely seen patients who had one or two episodes of [shingles] in a year who’d never