• Herpes Zoster (Shingles)

    Infection Control personnel are frequently asked questions about herpes zoster or "shingles." Following is a summary of what patients and health care professionals should know about the condition.

    Herpes zoster, also known as shingles or zoster, is a viral infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. In some people who have had chickenpox, the virus remains dormant or inactive in certain nerve roots of the body. Infection may recur years later as herpes zoster. About 20 percent of people who have had chickenpox will get zoster at some time during their lives. Most people get zoster only once.

    It is not clear what prompts the virus to reactivate or "awaken," but individuals with a weakened immune system for any reason are more prone to develop zoster. Certain medical treatments including chemotherapy and radiation for cancer, drugs taken to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, and steroids may also lower immunity. Illness, trauma and stress may also trigger a zoster attack.

    The first symptom of zoster is burning pain, tingling or extreme sensitivity in an area of the skin-usually limited to one side of the body. This sensation may be present for one to three days before a red rash appears at the site. This rash then develops into groups of chickenpox-type vesicles, which usually last for two to three weeks before crusting over and disappearing. Zoster is most common on the trunk and buttocks but can appear on the face, arms or legs if nerves in these areas are involved.

    Zoster is much less contagious than chickenpox. Individuals with herpes zoster cannot spread it to someone else except when someone who has not yet had chickenpox directly contacts the zoster vesicles. Transmission occurs by direct contact with vesicle fluid, and patients are no longer considered contagious once vesicles have crusted over. Standard precautions are followed for caring for most patients with zoster.

    In the immunocompromised patient, disseminated zoster may develop, resulting in the potential for respiratory droplet and/or contact spread of the virus. In the hospital setting, in addition to standard precautions, masks are worn to prevent transmission.

  • Make an Appointment

    (781) 744-8000