What to Know About COVID-19 and Shingles   

What to Know About COVID-19 and Shingles

senior man with wife at home coughing badly
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Edward W. Liu, M.D.

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still learning of all the possible long-term complications of infection.

Adults ages 50 and older infected with COVID-19 are 15 percent more likely to develop shingles within six months of the diagnosis compared to people who weren’t infected, according to a 2022 study published in the journal Open Forum Infectious Diseases. That likelihood increases to 21 percent among older people who had been hospitalized due to COVID.

What Is Shingles

Shingles is a painful infection that’s caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, called the varicella-zoster virus. Traces of the virus remain in the bodies of people who were infected with chickenpox and are held at bay by the body’s immune system. But when the immune system is compromised, the virus can cause shingles, also called herpes zoster. Often the most prominent symptom reported by people suffering from shingles is a painful skin rash.

Skin infected Herpes zoster virus, shingles

New research suggests that as COVID-19 attacks the body’s immune system, the varicella-zoster virus is sometimes taking advantage of the opportunity to break through. Shingles also can be caused by other events such as severe stress or hospitalization. Shingles can spread through physical contact to other people who have weak immune systems, never had chickenpox or the vaccine. When someone is infected, it’s crucial to cover their rash and avoid scratching to prevent bacterial infections. It’s also important to wash hands often.

How Vaccination Helps

New research suggests that in addition to getting an mRNA vaccine for COVID protection, people ages 50 and older should consider getting an additional vaccination—one that protects against shingles.

“We’ve all been paying so much attention to COVID-19 over the last few years, and for good reason. But in doing so, we can’t neglect our broader health care. That’s especially true regarding protection against shingles because of the way COVID infection puts people at particular risk,” says Edward Liu, M.D., internal medicine and infectious disease expert.

The good news is that the shingles vaccination, called Shingrix, is 97 percent effective in preventing shingles in adults ages 50–69, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is 91 percent effective in people 70 and older. Immunity remains high for seven years following vaccination.

“The last thing anyone wants in the midst of the pandemic is to get shingles, too—especially if you’ve just gotten over COVID,” says Dr. Liu.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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