Shingles and Cancer

Thursday, November 1, 2012 // Uncategorized

Does having an episode of shingles mean that you might have cancer?  As someones who has had shingles recently, I took note of this recent article.  FYI, shingles is also known as varicella zoster and is caused by a recurrence of the same virus that causes chickenpox.  One’s immunity keeps it walled off in the spinal cord cells and then when the body’s immunity blinks it erupts in a blistering rash along a nerve  which can be painful.  Fortunately, in my case, it just itched.  It may be that the shingles vaccine, Zostavax, reduced the severity of the rash.  Shingles seems to be ubiquitous and for some reason,it is on the rise.

Does an Episode of Shingles Portend Cancer?

Cancer risk was not higher in a population-based study.

Clinicians have long debated whether an episode of shingles (herpes zoster) is a marker for underlying but not yet diagnosed cancer. In a retrospective cohort study, researchers in Taiwan used their national health insurance research database to address this question.

Shingles was diagnosed between 2000 and 2008 in nearly 36,000 adults with no history of cancer. During median follow-up of 4 years, cancer was diagnosed in 895 of these patients; this number of cancer events was virtually identical to the number predicted by national cancer registry data. No excess risk for cancer was found for any major cancer subgroup (head and neck, digestive, breast, lung, genitourinary, or hematologic).

Comment: A strength of this study is its population-based methodology. A search for occult cancer does not appear warranted in patients with recent episodes of shingles.

Allan S. Brett, MDt

Published in Journal Watch General Medicine September 27, 2012


Wang Y-P et al. Risk of cancer among patients with herpes zoster infection: A population-based study. CMAJ 2012 Sep 17; [e-pub ahead of print]. (


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