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Do Statins Cause Shingles?

Understanding Statins and Shingles

Highlights

  1. Shingles is an infection caused by the herpes zoster virus.
  2. Shingles causes a rash. Skin irritation is mainly found on one side of your body and in a linear pattern along the nerves.
  3. You don’t need to avoid statins to prevent shingles. More research must investigate this connection before recommendations can be made.

High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease by building up in your arteries. Too much of this buildup, or plaque, can make your arteries hard and narrow. This makes it more likely for a blood clot to block a hard, narrow artery and cause a heart attack or stroke.

Many factors can increase your risk of high cholesterol. Your age, diet, family history, blood pressure, and even gender can affect your risk. Smoking can increase your cholesterol and your risk of heart disease.

Your doctor may recommend a statin if you have high cholesterol. Statins can help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. Some common statins include:

  • atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • pravastatin (Pravachol)
  • rosuvastatin (Crestor)
  • simvastatin (Zocor)

Statins can benefit you, but they can also carry side effects. Some people who have taken statins have developed:

  • muscle pain
  • liver damage
  • stomach problems
  • rash
  • type 2 diabetes

A recent study linked these drugs with an increased risk of shingles. Shingles is a painful infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Should a risk of shingles affect your decision to take statins?

What Is Shingles?

Shingles is an infection caused by the herpes zoster virus. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus may hibernate in your body for years. When you get older, it can emerge as shingles.

Shingles causes a rash. Skin irritation is mainly found on one side of your body and in a linear pattern along the nerves. Shingles isn’t fatal, but it can be very painful. It can also lead to complications, such as:

  • long-term nerve pain
  • loss of vision
  • paralysis
  • skin infection

If you’re 60 or older and have had chickenpox, watch out for shingles symptoms that include:

  • pain or burning on one side of your body
  • red rash with fluid-filled blisters
  • itchy skin

You may also have a fever, headache, or fatigue. Tell your doctor about these symptoms. Antiviral medicines like acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir) can help you heal faster and prevent shingles complications.

Statins and Shingles

A 2014 study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases investigated the link between statins and shingles. Researchers compared the health histories of about 495,000 adults over 66 who had taken statins with an equal number of people who hadn’t taken statins. Researchers then looked at how many people in each group were diagnosed with shingles.

People who took statins had a higher risk of getting shingles than those who hadn’t taken the drugs. Statin use was found to cause shingles in 1 out of 10 people who took statins. Statins may affect the risk of shingles by lowering immunity and making the herpes zoster virus more likely to reactivate.

This has been the only major study linking statins and shingles. Statins don't necessarily cause shingles. Other factors could cause the connection.

One study has linked high cholesterol levels to an increased risk of shingles. People with high cholesterol are more likely to have a gene variant called APOE4. This variant also could affect immunity against the herpes zoster virus. Also, the people in this study who took statins tended to have angina and myocardial infarctions. This tendency may have skewed the results of the study.

You don’t need to avoid statins to prevent shingles. More research is needed to investigate this connection before recommendations can be made.

Understanding Statins

Your doctor should prescribe statins based on the latest guidelines. These guidelines recommend statins for people who have:

  • cardiovascular disease, including chest pain (angina) or a history of heart attack or stroke
  • very high levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
  • diabetes, if they’re between ages 40 and 75
  • a greater than 7.5 percent chance of having a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years

Talk to your doctor before taking statins. Use statins only if the benefits of the drugs outweigh the risks of side effects.

Some factors increase your risk of developing side effects from statins. These factors include:

  • having a smaller body frame
  • being over 65
  • having liver or kidney diseases
  • having diabetes
  • consuming more than two alcoholic drinks each day

Talk to your doctor to decide if one or more of these factors may cause statins to be too risky for you.

Shingles Treatment

Shingles cannot be cured. However, there are plenty of treatments to make your symptoms and pain less severe.

Antiviral drugs, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir are the most effective medicines for shingles. Your doctor may also recommend medicine for the pain that goes along with shingles. Tricyclic antidepressants, numbing creams, medications with codeine, and local anesthetic shots can help with shingles pain.

Like chickenpox, shingles causes severe itching. This itching can be soothed with calamine lotion, an oatmeal bath, or a wet compress. Stopping yourself from itching can lessen your chances of developing long-term nerve pain and skin damage.

Shingles Prevention

Take statins to lower cholesterol and protect your heart. However, you should also follow other measures to lower your risk of getting shingles. Getting vaccinated can help you avoid this disease. The live zoster vaccine (Zostavax) is FDA approved for people age 50 and older. This vaccine lowers your chance of getting shingles. If you do get shingles, the vaccine makes the symptoms shorter and less severe.

The shingles vaccine is a preventive method only. It doesn’t help after you’ve already gotten shingles. Long-term nerve pain caused by shingles, known as postherpetic neuralgia, is also not treated by the shingles vaccine.

Outlook

You can do a lot to prevent and treat shingles. If you’re over 60 and have had chickenpox, talk to your doctor before taking statins. If you’re interested, also ask about the shingles vaccine. Knowing the risks and taking preventive measures can help you avoid this condition.

No research conclusively shows that statins cause shingles. However, talk to your doctor about shingles and other side effects of statins to see if statins will help rather than hurt your health. To learn more about shingles and ways to prevent it, visit:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS)
  • National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID)

You asked, we answered

  • Is it OK to take statins along with shingles medication?
  • There are no known drug-drug interactions between statins and medications for the treatment of shingles.

    - Mark R. Laflamme, MD

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Shingles and HIV: What You Should Know
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