As chemotherapy weakens your immune system, it may increase your chance of developing shingles, a viral infection. Shingles complications may delay chemotherapy treatment, so vaccination against this virus is important.

If you’re living with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, you may already be aware of some of the increased health risks associated with your condition and treatment. Among these is an increased chance of developing shingles, a common viral infection.

Here, we’ll delve into what shingles is, how it can affect your cancer treatment, and what you can do to protect yourself from this serious condition.

Chemotherapy is an aggressive treatment with many serious side effects. One of the possible risks stems from its effects on your immune system, which makes you more vulnerable to infections due to bacteria and viruses.

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus responsible for chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus can lie dormant in your body for many years and reactivate later in life, leading to shingles.

Chemotherapy can further suppress your body’s ability to fight off this virus, increasing the likelihood of shingles.

In a 2018 study, people with solid tumors receiving chemotherapy were 83% more likely to develop shingles. The increased risk was much lower (16%) for those not receiving chemo.

Cancer and shingles risk

Some cancers can increase the likelihood of developing shingles even before you start treatment. This happens because certain cancers can weaken your immune system as they spread through your body.

In a 2019 study, people with cancer had a 40% higher chance of developing shingles than people without cancer. A 2021 study reported that cancers associated with an increased chance of shingles can affect these parts of your body:

Was this helpful?

Shingles is a common condition, with about 1 in every 3 people in the United States developing it in their lifetime. It can cause a painful rash and nerve pain that typically goes away in 3–5 weeks. But some complications of shingles can last for months or even years.

For those living with cancer, shingles won’t worsen your cancer symptoms. However, shingles may cause additional symptoms that can further affect your quality of life.

A weakened immune system from cancer or chemotherapy also increases your chance of complications, which may lead to a delay in your cancer treatment.

If you have cancer, it’s important to promptly seek medical attention if you experience the following symptoms of shingles:

Your doctor will likely make a diagnosis based on the appearance of your rash. They may then recommend that you take antiviral medication like acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir to reduce your pain and speed up your recovery.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may also need the following:

Be sure to let your doctor know that you have cancer and what treatments you are receiving. In some cases, you may need to postpone cancer treatment until you’re free of the virus.

While undergoing chemotherapy, taking steps to prevent shingles is especially crucial. Here are some strategies you can use to lower your risk:

  • Get vaccinated before starting chemotherapy: Talk with your doctor about getting the shingles vaccine before starting cancer treatment. While you can receive the vaccine during your cancer treatment, it’s more effective if you get your first dose at least 8 days before starting chemo.
  • Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands regularly and avoid close contact with people who have shingles or chickenpox.
  • Boost your immune system: Follow a healthy diet, get enough rest, avoid stress, and consider including gentle exercise in your routine, if possible.
  • Watch out for any unusual symptoms: Keep your healthcare team updated about any symptoms you experience, including any rashes, pain, or fever.

Let’s review a few questions people with cancer frequently ask their doctors about shingles.

Can I get the shingles vaccine if I’m on chemotherapy?

Research from 2019 suggests the shingles vaccine is both safe and effective for people receiving chemotherapy. Still, researchers advise that getting the first dose of the vaccine 8–30 days before starting chemo produces a stronger immune response. Your doctor can help you determine the best course of action for your specific situation.

Which types of cancer increase your risk of shingles?

Any type of cancer can increase your chance of shingles if you’re undergoing chemotherapy. But certain cancers, especially the ones affecting your lymphatic system and bone marrow, pose an even higher risk because they can weaken your immune system.

Is shingles a sign of cancer?

Shingles itself is not a sign of cancer. However, if you develop shingles, be sure to bring this up with a doctor, as it could indicate underlying health issues, including cancer in some cases.

Cancer treatment can be challenging enough without adding shingles to the mix. If you’re considering chemo as part of your treatment, take proactive steps to protect yourself from shingles.

Getting vaccinated, practicing good hygiene, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and keeping an eye on any unusual symptoms can reduce your risk of shingles and help you focus on the journey toward recovery.