had it before but who had had COVID,” Kovarik adds. “And I had multiple patients like this, and it was happening in more of my patients.”
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees.
“This is not a surprising finding as SARS-CoV-2 is known to cause immune dysfunction and physiologic stress,” Adalja says. “Physiologic stress and dysregulated immune function are known factors” in shingles outbreaks.
Are you at risk?
Nearly all adults over age 50 have had chicken pox, and therefore are at risk for developing shingles, Bhavsar said.
For this study, Bhavsar and his colleagues compared medical data from nearly 400,000 COVID patients 50 and older with more than 1.5 million people who never contracted COVID.
No one in either group had been vaccinated against either COVID or shingles.
The researchers found an elevated risk of shingles among COVID patients that persists for at least six months after their illness.
Because people vaccinated against shingles were excluded from the study, it’s not known whether the shingles vaccine could limit or eliminate this risk from COVID, Bhavsar notes.
Kovarik is concerned that a severe COVID infection might overcome the immunity conferred by the shingles vaccine, particularly in people with weakened immune systems.
“The shingles vaccine is just a stronger dose of the chicken pox vaccine, trying to rev up your immune cells and show them the virus so you can have some immune activity against that virus,” Kovarik says. “People who have some immune problems, maybe they’re not mounting as good of an immune reaction to the vaccine, or the COVID is so strong it can overwhelm your immune response to the shingles.”
How to protect yourself
Folks who are worried about getting shingles should consider getting both the COVID and shingles vaccines, Kovarik suggests.
“The numbers have shown that the COVID vaccine helps prevent hospitalizations and deaths, so getting a COVID vaccine should prevent a severe case, which would hopefully prevent [shingles] in those patients,” Kovarik concludes.