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Herpes zoster linked to raised cancer risk

GPs should be aware that patients diagnosed with herpes zoster may have an underlying undiagnosed cancer, researchers are warning.

A primary care study found the risk of developing cancer was more than twice as high for patients diagnosed with herpes zoster than in matched controls.

There has been a suggestion previously that herpes zoster might be associated with an increased cancer risk, but that has never been properly quantified.

But a study of 100,000 patient records held in the UK general practice research database found adults diagnosed with herpes zoster were 2.3 times more likely to be diagnosed with any cancer than age and gender-matched controls with no history of herpes zoster infection.

The risk of diagnoses of specific cancers after herpes zoster infection varied. Infection increased the risk of lung cancer by 2.53 relative to controls, prostate cancer by 2.44 times, and breast cancer by 2.38 times.

Colorectal cancer risk was raised by only 1.85-fold, but was still significantly higher than in controls. Herpes zoster infection also trebled the risk of haematological cancers.

Dr Stephen Cotton, academic fellow in primary care and public health at the University of Cardiff, said the study established an association between the infection and a future diagnosis of cancer.

‘The increased risk appears to be more prominent with haematological malignancies and supports the possibility of immunosuppression because of the underlying malignancy or as an aetiological factor in the occurrence of cancer.

‘While it is difficult to justify extensive screening for cancer without further subgroup analysis, the knowledge of this excess risk adds to the GP's toolbox in cancer diagnosis.'

The research was published at the south-west meeting of the Society for Academic Primary Care.

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