If you have high cholesterol, your doctor might recommend that you take a statin drug to help prevent heart disease and stroke. For many people, statins lower high cholesterol levels effectively. Some people may experience side effects when they’re treated with these drugs. You may have heard about an increased risk of shingles from statins.

Shingles, known more formally as herpes zoster, is an infection caused by varicella-zoster virus (human herpesvirus 3). This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus can hibernate in your body for many years. It can become active again later and cause shingles. Shingles usually appears in people aged 60 years or older.

Singles can be very painful. Symptoms include:

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

It can also lead to complications, such as:

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

In 2014, a study investigated the possible link between statins and shingles. Researchers compared about 495,000 adults ages 66 years and older who had taken statins and an equal number of people who hadn’t taken these drugs. Then, they looked at how many people in each group were diagnosed with shingles. Results showed that older people who took statins had a higher risk of shingles than those who hadn’t taken the drugs. The authors suggest that statins may increase the risk of shingles by lowering immunity. Statins may also make the varicella-zoster virus more likely to reactivate.

It’s important not to jump to conclusions from this study, though. This has been the only major study so far to find a connection between statins and shingles. It doesn’t prove that statins cause shingles. Other factors could be behind the connection.

Additionally, people for whom statins reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks, should still take the drug even if it increases their risk of shingles.

Other variables

Another piece published in Clinical Infectious Diseases suggests the increased risk of shingles could be due to high cholesterol levels rather than the statin drugs used to treat them. A study has also linked high cholesterol levels to an increased risk of shingles.

Increased risk of shingles might also be due to a gene variant called APOE4. This variant could affect immunity against the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. People with high cholesterol are more likely to have this variant.

Clearly, more research is needed. More evidence of a possible connection between statin use and shingles must be shown before recommendations can be made.

You can take measures to lower your risk of getting shingles. One of the best ways to avoid this disease is to get vaccinated. The zoster vaccine live (Zostavax) is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for people who are 50 years and older. This vaccine lowers your chance of getting shingles. If you get the vaccine and still get shingles, the vaccine makes your outbreak shorter and less severe.

Learn more: Shingles and prevention »

Statins are effective drugs that help lower high cholesterol levels. Your doctor will most likely recommend statins for you based on your risk factors for heart attack or stroke. These factors include:

  • cardiovascular disease, including angina or a history of heart attack or stroke
  • very high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol
  • diabetes mellitus in people between the ages of 40 and 75 years

Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your risk of shingles from statin use. They can help you weigh the risks and benefits according to your individual health history. Your doctor can also help you take all the steps you can to avoid shingles.