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Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is an infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Almost 1 in 3 people will have shingles at some point in their lives.

Some people believe that there is a direct connection between the appearance of shingles symptoms and the COVID-19 coronavirus as well as its vaccines. Some have even suggested that COVID-19 causes shingles and that vaccines given to protect against the virus can cause shingles, too.

Current scientific research indicates that neither COVID-19 itself nor any vaccine given to protect against it causes shingles. But that does not mean that there is not a link between the two.

In some cases, the COVID-19 coronavirus does seem to reactivate the herpes zoster virus if a person already has had shingles or chickenpox. This can cause symptoms of shingles.

Let’s take a look at what we know and do not know about COVID-19 and the shingles virus.

There’s currently no evidence to clear up the question of whether having COVID-19 or getting vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes it increases your risk for developing shingles in any statistically significant way.

But it seems clear that neither the virus nor the vaccines can cause a shingles outbreak since shingles is caused by a different virus entirely.

To better understand the relationship between the two, let’s look at some details about the herpes zoster virus and SARS-CoV-2, responsible for shingles and COVID-19, respectively, as well as what the research currently suggests about the link between the two conditions.

Herpes zoster (shingles)

Herpes zoster is a virus that first takes the form of chickenpox. Many people contract this virus during childhood. You can also be vaccinated against the virus.

Whether you have acquired varicella or been vaccinated against it, the virus lies dormant in certain nerve cells after your exposure.

Years after your first encounter with chickenpox, the virus can be reactivated in the form of shingles. Symptoms of shingles will typically include a rash on your trunk or your buttocks. The rash can be itchy and painful. Even after the rash fades, you may notice pain in the area where the rash appeared.

Most people only get shingles once in their lifetime, but the virus can be reactivated multiple times.

People over age 60 years old or who have a compromised immune system are at a higher risk for reactivation of herpes zoster and developing symptoms of shingles. In fact, people who are at a higher risk for shingles are also at a higher risk for severe symptoms of COVID-19.

SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19)

COVID-19 is a highly transmissible respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. It’s primarily transmitted through the air when people who have contracted the coronavirus breathe out respiratory particles that contain viral material.

COVID-19 has a wide range of symptoms. Some people who have contracted SARS-COV-2 may not present any symptoms at all (asymptomatic), while others may experience severe symptoms and require hospitalization. Symptoms may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • coughing
  • fever
  • headache
  • loss of taste or smell

While COVID-19 symptoms can be flu-like, the coronavirus that causes it is much different than the virus that causes the annual flu. Researchers are still working to understand COVID-19’s short- and long-term effects on the body.

What the research says

What we do know is that when your immune system is compromised or distracted fighting off another virus, it tends to give the herpes zoster virus a chance to reactivate.

Past research has established that immune-suppressing medications like chemotherapy and corticosteroids as well as health conditions that attack your immune system like Crohn’s disease, HIV, and lupus increase your risk for a shingles outbreak.

Researchers are currently trying to understand whether COVID-19 may do the same thing.

Preliminary data suggests that this could be the case, but we do not know yet.

A small 2021 study involving 491 vaccinated people in Israel showed that six participants experienced shingles for the first time after getting their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. All six individuals had pre-existing conditions that lowered their natural immune response, and all six fully recovered after developing shingles.

This study prompted researchers to advocate for more studies on COVID-19 vaccines as possible triggers for (not cause of) the shingles virus.

Data gathered in Brazil also showed an increase of 10.7 cases of shingles per million inhabitants during the time of the pandemic.

It’s impossible to know exactly how and to what extent the effect of increased stress of the pandemic and other factors played into these numbers increasing during that span of time. Stress has long been suspected to be a possible factor in developing shingles.

A small study published in October 2020 by the University of California showed that there was no statistical evidence to support claims of a link between the herpes zoster virus and COVID-19.

This conclusion was based on 608 cases of herpes zoster in which only 2.1 percent of people (13) with shingles tested positive for COVID-19 between March 2020 and August 2020.

If you are currently experiencing a shingles outbreak, it’s natural to question and want to know what caused it.

Besides the herpes zoster virus being reactivated in your system, other more complicated, less well-known triggers for the virus include:

  • the decline in your immune system’s response, a natural (and normal) part of aging
  • procedures, such as organ transplants, that require the use of immunosuppressant medication
  • autoimmune conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis
  • immunosuppressant treatments, such as chemotherapy, corticosteroids, and anti-inflammatory medications

Whether you suspect that you have shingles, COVID-19, or both, seek medical attention immediately if you notice one or more of the following:

  • a temperature of 103°F or higher
  • difficulty breathing
  • skin or lips that are turning pale or bluish
  • persistent pain or pressure in your chest
  • confusion or feeling disoriented
  • a rash near your eye

If you have a compromised immune system, are pregnant, or are over age 65 years, see a doctor right away if you suspect you have COVID-19 orshingles regardless of your specific symptoms.

Shingles is typically treated with antiviral medication. The earlier you get a confirmed diagnosis, the more effective the medication will be at managing your symptoms.

Acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir are antiviral medications that may be prescribed to treat a shingles outbreak.

Acyclovir is currently seen as promising for the treatment of COVID-19 as well. But how well it works is still being established.

Remdesivir, another antiviral, is currently the only drug that is FDA approved for treating COVID-19.

Other treatments for shingles include:

  • anti-inflammatory medications (such as ibuprofen) to treat pain or swelling
  • oral pain relievers
  • antihistamines to treat itching
  • topical capsaicin or lidocaine cream

COVID-19 does not cause shingles — neither do any of the currently available vaccines designed to protect you against COVID-19.

We know this because shingles is caused by a different virus entirely. What we do not yet know is whether getting a COVID-19 vaccine or contracting SARS-CoV-2 might increase your risk for reactivating the virus that causes shingles.

Speak with a doctor if you have any concerns about getting vaccinated.