Older adults who are diagnosed with prostate and other cancers have a significantly higher risk of developing shingles (herpes zoster) than people the same age who don’t have cancer, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.
Overall, the likelihood of developing shingles rises 40 percent with a diagnosis of cancer of any kind, and the risk is even higher in people with blood cancers. A diagnosis of prostate cancer or cancer related to other solid tumors, such as breast or lung cancer, was linked to a 30 percent higher chance of developing shingles.
Shingles is an itchy, painful rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus-the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you have chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in your nerve cells, but it can reactivate, causing shingles. People with a weakened immune system are more vulnerable to shingles.
In the study, adults (average age, 62) whose cancer was related to a solid tumor, such as prostate cancer, and who had chemotherapy, which weakens the immune system, tended to develop shingles more often than patients who didn’t undergo chemotherapy. For both solid and blood cancers, the risk was highest within the first year after diagnosis. Risk remained elevated for three years after diagnosis.
The actual number of shingles cases among people with cancer might be higher than the study reported, however. For their analysis, the researchers used hospital admission and antiviral prescription records, which might not have included all persons with shingles or cancer over the study period.
Until recently, the only FDA-approved shingles vaccine, Zostavax, contained an attenuated (weakened) live varicella-zoster virus, which isn’t safe for people who are immunosuppressed (having an impaired or weakened immune system). However, the recently approved Shingrix vaccine doesn’t contain a live virus. Shingrix holds promise in that it is likely safe for people who are immunosuppressed; research to find out is currently underway.