Herpes zoster, also known as shingles or zoster, is a viral infection caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. Anyone who has had chicken pox can develop herpes zoster. The virus remains dormant (inactive), in certain nerve cells of the body, and when it reactivates it causes zoster. About 20 percent of those people who have had chicken pox will get zoster. Most people get zoster only once.
It is not clear what makes the virus reactivate or “awaken.” A temporary weakness in immunity (the body’s ability to fight infection) may cause the virus to multiply and move along nerve fibers toward the skin. Although children can get zoster, it is more common in people over the age 50. Illness, trauma, and stress may also trigger zoster.
What are the symptoms of zoster?
First, there may be burning, itching, tingling, or extreme sensitivity in one area of the skin usually limited to one side of the body. This may be present for one to three days before a red rash appears at that site. There may also be a fever or headache. The rash soon turns into groups of blisters. The blisters generally last for two to three weeks. Zoster is most common on the trunk and buttocks, but it can also appear on the face, arms, or legs if nerves in these areas are involved.
Great care is needed if the blisters involve the eye because permanent eye damage can result. Blisters on the tip of the nose signal possible eye involvement.
Is zoster contagious?
Zoster is much less contagious than chicken pox. Persons with zoster can transmit the virus if blisters are broken. Newborns or those with decreased immunity are at the highest risk for contracting chicken pox from someone who has zoster.
What about treatment?
Zoster usually clears on its own in a few weeks and seldom recurs. Pain relievers and cool compresses are helpful in drying the blisters. If diagnosed early, oral anti-viral drugs can be prescribed to decrease both viral shedding and the duration of skin lesions. The earlier the treatment is started the better.