The likelihood of developing shingles (herpes zoster) rises 40 percent with a diagnosis of cancer—and the risk is even higher in people with blood cancers, reports an Australian study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
Shingles is an itchy, painful rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in your nerve cells, but it can reactivate, causing shingles. People with a weakened immune system are more vulnerable to shingles.
In the study, people whose cancer was related to a solid tumor, such as breast, prostate, or lung cancer, and who had chemotherapy, which weakens the immune system, tended to develop shingles more often than patients who didn’t undergo chemotherapy. For both solid and blood cancers, the risk was highest within the first year after diagnosis. Risk remained elevated for three years after diagnosis.
The actual number of shingles cases among people with cancer might be higher than the study reported, however. For their analysis, the researchers used hospital admission and antiviral prescription records, which might not have included all individuals with shingles or cancer over the study period.
Until recently, the only FDA-approved shingles vaccine, Zostavax, contained an attenuated (weakened) live varicella-zoster virus, which isn’t safe for people who are immunosuppressed (that is, who have an impaired or weakened immune system). However, the recently approved Shingrix vaccine doesn’t contain a live virus. Shingrix holds promise in that it is likely safe for people who are immunosuppressed; research to find out is currently underway.
What you should do
If you have a weakened immune system from cancer or cancer treatment—or for any other reason—you should talk with your doctor about getting the Shingrix vaccine if you haven't already.
This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.