Varicella zoster

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Herpes Zoster (or Zoster, or Shingles) is a painful blistering rash owing to reactivation of the virus persisting from previous (childhood) chickenpox, which is one of the traditionally recognised childhood exanthemata. Zoster sine herpete (dermatone distribution pain without rash) is known.


Isolates obtained from varicella and zoster in the same person are identical, as shown by molecular genetics since then, despite there being differences between individual strains of the Varicella Zoster virus (VZV).


Reactivation of Varicella zoster virus - a large DNA Herpes virus - Human herpesvirus 3.

This reactivation arises when host immunity - specifically, VZV-specific cell-mediated immunity, rather than antibody to VZV - drops below the threshold necessary to prevent reactivation.[12][13])


LogoKeyPointsBox.pngAlthough missing the diagnosis in the presence of the rash is embarrassing it must be remembered that zoster sine herpete is more common early and late
A painful blistering rash, usually restricted to one or two adjacent dermatones.

The Varicella Zoster virus (VZV) remains dormant in the dorsal root ganglion and is reactivated, perhaps owing to stress, infection, sunlight, immunodeficiency or other intercurrent illness. This appears as a vesicular rash along the dermatome supplied by the the dorsal root nerve root. The rash tends to appear most predominately on the trunk and chest and sometimes also on the face where the eye can become involved. It can cause severe pain.

Since PCR testing has become available the virus has been identified as one of the most common viruses causing CNS disease and it has become evident that this disease includes a wide spectrum of different CNS manifestations. The most evaluated CNS manifestations are encephalitis which is associated with both varicella and herpes zoster and, cerebellitis which occurs predominantly in children with varicella.[14]

Clinical complications

Urinary retention

Urinary retention can result from sacral dermatone involvement.

CNS vasculitis

The risk of stroke is increased following an attack of shingles, especially after an attack of opththalmic shingles.[15]. This is due to large vessel vasculitis and can occur without shingles or many months after the attack of shingles.

Confusion can be a problematical complication in the very old with a differential diagnosis including drugs (analgesics and aciclovir), zoster encephalitis and stroke as above. However many cases are probably small vessel vasculitis.[16] The role of antivirals and steroids in such presentations are unclear.

VZV in the immune suppressed

In the immune suppressed a more widespread - but often less painful - eruption may occur. Organs may also be affected. Viral shedding is more profuse and persistent.

Ophthalmic shingles

Zoster of the fifth cranial nerve is a special case and should involve a timely specialist opinion. There is a risk of blindness.

Disseminated shingles

Disseminated shingles generally occurs in patients who are immune suppressed as a result of drugs or illness such as haematological malignancies. (Exceptions do occur - it has been reported in patients who are not immune suppressed.[17])

In disseminated shingles the rash is found in more than three dermatomes: the condition is commonly mistaken for chickenpox. The vesicles may be larger; and there may also be lesions in internal organs including the liver and brain, making the condition potentially lethal. (It is thought that the British composer Wikipedia:Gerald Finzi may have died from a cerebral abscess caused by disseminated shingles secondary to Hodgkin's disease.) In immune suppressed patients with a chickenpox-like rash should be assumed to have disseminated shingles; and disseminated shingles in such patients needs urgent and vigorous antiviral therapy.


A clinical diagnosis, although virus may be isolated from lesions.

Blood tests

Blood tests are not usually required, useful or performed.



Varicella Zoster virus is one of the few viruses for which we have a safe effective drug available. Aciclovir and other drugs in that group are somewhat effective in attenuating the disease. Treatment is traditionally reserved for those who are believed to be at greater risk, particularly if they have a history of steroid treatment recently, but if shingles is seen early treating it seems likely to be beneficial. The effect of anti-viral treatment of the initial illness on post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) is unclear, although a recent review stated that:[18]

"Meta-analyses and randomised controlled trials suggest that the oral antiviral agents aciclovir, famcicolovir, and valaciclovir started within 72 hours of the onset of rash reduce both the severity and the duration of acute pain, as well as the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia. The nucleoside analogue brivudin has been shown to be as effective as famciclovir but superior to aciclovir in both healing acute lesions and reducing postherpetic neuralgia. The pharmacokinetics of oral antivirals differ considerably, so the patient's ability to adhere to a multiple dosing regimen should be considered when selecting an agent for treatment. Antiviral treatment is effective at an early stage when viral replication is still occurring. It should be given to patients who present within 72 hours of the onset of rash and to those aged over 50 with new vesicle formation or complications whenever they present. Published guidelines advise that herpes zoster ophthalmicus should always be treated with antivirals and the advice of an ophthalmologist sought. Likewise, visceral herpes zoster requires prompt admission to hospital and use of intravenous aciclovir (10 mg/kg, eight hourly)."

(The use of the word "suggest" rather than "show" implies that the results of the studies referred to are not clear cut.)


Although the virus is present in the blisters, shingles is minimally infectious. It can cause chickenpox - but the virus has to be inhaled or ingested. As long as the blisters can be kept covered, staff and school-children need not be excluded from work or school to prevent the infection of others. (In contrast, patients with chickenpox excrete the virus in respiratory secretions, so it can be spread by coughing.)


Primary infection (Chickenpox) can be safely and effectively prevented by vaccination, but the vaccine is not part of the routine UK policy - see information on chickenpox page for more details. It is likely that chickenpox vaccination would prevent future cases of shingles - although, if a live attenuated virus is used, there is a possibility that the vaccine virus might cause shingles, though if it does, it might be milder than with wild virus.

LogoWarningBox4.pngVaricella and Zoster vaccines have different concentrations of virus and are for different indications. Check carefully

There are now two licensed vaccines for zoster (shingles): a live attenuated virus vaccine, sometimes referred to by the abbreviation ZV (Zoster vaccine), which has been in use for years; and a recently (2017) licensed recombinant, attenuated subunit vaccine, abbreviated to HZ/su (Herpes zoster subunit). At least one paper has compared the immune response to the two vaccines, and found that the HZ/su generated a stronger immune response, with greater markers of immune memory, than ZV vaccine.[19]

Live attenuated virus varicella zoster (shingles) vaccine

This is the same live attenuated virus as is used to prevent varicella (chickenpox), but a higher concentration is used.[20] In the USA this vaccine is recommended for everybody age 60+.[21][22] The JCVI's varicella subgroup recommended in 2009 that herpes zoster vaccination should be introduced to people aged 70 years and over; and on January 31 2010 the main JCVI endorsed this decision.[23][24][25][26]

When the vaccine was first there was a complex eligibility arrangement - due to issues with vaccine supply the vaccine had to be rationed. But - having offered the vaccine to most people up to the age of 78 - this has been simplified. Since 1 April 2018, a single dose of the vaccine can and should be offered to anybody who is at least 70 years old, up until their 80th birthday.[27]

At 3 years post-vaccination zoster vaccine reduced the shingles related burden of illness by 61%, the incidence of herpes zoster by 51% and the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia by 67%[11][28]. It works for at least 7 years in those with normal immunity for age[29]. Various articles have suggested that the vaccine may be cost-effective.[30][31][32]

Again, in theory, GPs may prescribe (or purchase) and administer shingles vaccine on the NHS for people in whom it is "clinically indicated"; and vaccine may be available from private clinics. However, nearly all (if not all) of the stock available in the UK has been bought by the NHS for the national programme, so the vaccine may not be available for prescription of purchase of people outwith the programme. It would be illegal (quite likely a criminal offence) to use vaccines provided for the programme for other purposes.

Vaccine efficacy following an attack of shingles may be poor (the attack of shingles may already have boosted immunity); and data on the value (or otherwise) of additional boosters is limited.

As it contains live (albeit attenuated) virus, it is contraindicated in people with immune suppression. There have been deaths in people given live-virus vaccine who should not have received it due to contraindications (immune suppression).[20][21]

Zoster vaccine was discussed on BBC Radio4's "Inside Health" programme on 12 February 2013. Adam Finn, a paediatrician with a particular interest in vaccination said that he would like to see varicella vaccination introduced in the UK; and David Salisbury, Director of Immunisation at the Department of Health, said that this would be logical, but that, because of the higher morbidity and mortality associated with shingles, Zoster vaccine was a higher priority.

David Salisbury also announced on this radio programme that zoster vaccine would be introduced in autumn 2013. From then, the vaccine would be offered to everybody age 70. In addition, in the first year the vaccine would also be offered to everybody aged 79; in the second year it would also be offered to those age 78 and 79, and a catch-up programme would continue, with different cohorts covered each year, until everybody who had been 70-79 years old at the time the vaccine was introduced had been offered the vaccine.

This appears to have been the first announcement of any detail about this proposal. There had been no formal announcement from JCVI since 2010;[33] the document describing the new NHS Commissioning Board's public health functions refers to the introduction of a zoster vaccine in 2013,[34] but with no details; and a letter from the Department of Health proposing changes to the General Practice contract included the paragraph (Annex A, para 43):[35]

  • "We propose to introduce a new item of service fee of £7.63 to make payments for routine shingles immunisation for patients aged 70. The NHS CB will be responsible for introducing any confirmed catch up programme for patients aged 71 to 79."

Sub-unit vaccines

In 2017 an adjuvanted Herpes zoster sub-unit vaccine (hence its short generic name "HZ/su") to prevent shingles was endorsed by a US advisory committee.[36] It was subsequently licensed, with the brand name Shingrix, in the USA and Canada in 2017, and in Japan and the European Union in 2018.[37]

Perhaps due to availability issues, the vaccine was introduced for routine use in USA, but has not yet (2018) been made widely available in the UK.

Compared to live attenuated virus vaccine, HZ/su appears to be more effective, and likely to be effective for longer. It also avoids the risk of inadvertently giving a live attenuated vaccine to a patient with immune suppression.

Flag of USA.png

"A new shingles vaccine called Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine) was licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2017. CDC recommends that healthy adults 50 years and older get two doses of Shingrix, 2 to 6 months apart. Shingrix provides strong protection against shingles and PHN. Shingrix is the preferred vaccine, over Zostavax® (zoster vaccine live), a shingles vaccine in use since 2006." (from CDC web site.)

Post exposure prophylaxis

See chickenpox page.


Since shingles is a (usually late) sequela of chickenpox, there would be little point in making it notifiable. Chickenpox is not currently notifiable (although if a decision is made to move to using MMRV vaccine in the UK - as is current policy in North America - this might change).

External links and references


  1. Von Bokay, J, l~ber den aetiologischen Zusammenhang der Varizellen mit gewissen Fällen yon Herpes zoster, Wein. klin. woch. 1909;22:1323
  2. Kundratitz K. Experimentelle Übertragung von Herpes Zoster auf den Menschen und die Beziehungen von Herpes Zoster zu Varicellen. Monatsshrift Kinderheilkd 1925;29: 516–522.
  3. Brain, R T, The relationship between the viruses of zoster and varicella as demonstrated by the complement fixation reaction, Brit. J. Exp. Path. 1933;14:67
  4. Rake, G, Blank, H, Coriell, L L, Nagler, F P O, and Scott, T F M, The relationship of varicella and herpes zoster: Electron microscope studies, J. Bact. 1948;56:293
  5. Weller T H, Witton H M. The etiologic agents of varicella and herpes zoster: Serological studies with viruses as propagated in vitro. J Experimental Medicine 1958;108:869-890
  6. Hope-Simpson RE. Postherpetic neuralgia. The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners. 1975 Aug; 25(157):571-5.
  7. HOPE-SIMPSON RE. THE NATURE OF HERPES ZOSTER. The Practitioner. 1964 Aug; 193:217-9.
  8. HOPE-SIMPSON RE. THE NATURE OF HERPES ZOSTER: A LONG-TERM STUDY AND A NEW HYPOTHESIS. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 1965 Jan; 58:9-20.
  9. Edmunds WJ, Brisson M. The Effect of Vaccination on the Epidemiology of Varicella Zoster Virus. Journal of Infection 2002;44(4):211-219
  10. Oxman MN. Advances and Controversies in Our Understanding of Herpes Zoster—Introduction. J Infect Dis 2018;218(suppl_2):S55-S56, DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiy156 (
  11. a b Oxman MN, Levin MJ, Johnson GR, Schmader KE, Straus SE, Gelb LD, Arbeit RD, Simberkoff MS, Gershon AA, Davis LE, Weinberg A, Boardman KD, Williams HM, Zhang JH, Peduzzi PN, Beisel CE, Morrison VA, Guatelli JC, Brooks PA, Kauffman CA, Pachucki CT, Neuzil KM, Betts RF, Wright PF, Griffin MR, Brunell P, Soto NE, Marques AR, Keay SK, Goodman RP, Cotton DJ, Gnann JW, Loutit J, Holodniy M, Keitel WA, Crawford GE, Yeh SS, Lobo Z, Toney JF, Greenberg RN, Keller PM, Harbecke R, Hayward AR, Irwin MR, Kyriakides TC, Chan CY, Chan IS, Wang WW, Annunziato PW, Silber JL. A vaccine to prevent herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia in older adults. The New England journal of medicine. 2005 Jun 2; 352(22):2271-84.(Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  12. Oxman MN. Advances and Controversies in Our Understanding of Herpes Zoster—Introduction. J Infect Dis 2018;218(suppl_2):S55-S56, DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiy156 (
  13. Laing KJ, Ouwendijk WJD, Koelle DM, Verjans GMGM. Immunobiology of Varicella-Zoster Virus Infection. J Infect Dis 2018;218(suppl_2):S68-S74, DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiy403 (
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  15. Kang JH, Ho JD, Chen YH, Lin HC. Increased Risk of Stroke After a Herpes Zoster Attack. A Population-Based Follow-Up Study. Stroke; a journal of cerebral circulation. 2009 Oct 8.(Epub ahead of print) (Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  16. Nagel MA, Cohrs RJ, Mahalingam R, Wellish MC, Forghani B, Schiller A, Safdieh JE, Kamenkovich E, Ostrow LW, Levy M, Greenberg B, Russman AN, Katzan I, Gardner CJ, Häusler M, Nau R, Saraya T, Wada H, Goto H, de Martino M, Ueno M, Brown WD, Terborg C, Gilden DH. The varicella zoster virus vasculopathies: clinical, CSF, imaging, and virologic features. Neurology. 2008 Mar 11; 70(11):853-60.(Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  17. Gupta S, Jain A, Gardiner C, Tyring SK. A rare case of disseminated cutaneous zoster in an immunocompetent patient. BMC Fam Pract 2005;6:50-50 PMID: PMC1327670, DOI: 10.1186/1471-2296-6-50 (
  18. Wareham DW, Breuer J. Herpes zoster. Br Med J 2007;334(7605):1211-1215. (May require subscription)
  19. Weinberg A, Kroehl ME, Johnson MJ, Hammes A, Reinhold D, Lang N, et al. Comparative Immune Responses to Licensed Herpes Zoster Vaccines. J Infect Dis 2018;218(suppl_2):S81-S87, DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiy383 (
  20. Oxman MN, Levin MJ, Johnson GR, Schmader KE, Straus SE, Gelb LD, et al. A Vaccine to Prevent Herpes Zoster and Postherpetic Neuralgia in Older Adults. N Engl J Med 2005;352(22):2271-84
  21. R Harpaz, IR Ortega-Sanchez, JF Seward. Prevention of Herpes Zoster: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). 2008 (June 6) 57(05);1-30.
  22. Vaccines and Preventable Diseases: Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Vaccination. CDC web site. Last modified January 25, 2008. Last viewed February 3, 2008.
  23. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). Minutes of the Minutes of the JCVI Meeting held on 14 October 2009.
  24. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). JCVI short statement on Herpes zoster vaccines. London: Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, 2010
  25. Department of Health. Press release: Shingles vaccine moves a step closer. 2010; Updated 29 January 2010 Accessed: 2010 (1 February)
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  28. Oxman MN, Levin MJ. Vaccination against Herpes Zoster and Postherpetic Neuralgia. The Journal of infectious diseases. 2008 Mar 1; 197 Suppl 2:S228-36.(Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  29. Sanford M, Keating GM. Zoster vaccine (zostavax(r)): a review of its use in preventing herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia in older adults. Drugs & aging. 2010; 27(2):159-76.(Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  30. Pellissier JM, Brisson M, Levin MJ. Evaluation of the cost-effectiveness in the United States of a vaccine to prevent herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia in older adults. Vaccine. 2007 Nov 28; 25(49):8326-37.(Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  31. Bilcke J, Marais C, Ogunjimi B, Willem L, Hens N, Beutels P. Cost-effectiveness of vaccination against herpes zoster in adults aged over 60 years in Belgium. Vaccine. 2012 Jan 11; 30(3):675-84.(Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  32. de Boer PT, Pouwels KB, Cox JM, Hak E, Wilschut JC, Postma MJ. Cost-effectiveness of vaccination of the elderly against herpes zoster in The Netherlands. Vaccine. 2013 Feb 18; 31(9):1276-83.(Link to article – subscription may be required.)
  33. Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation Statement on varicella and herpes zoster vaccines. London: Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), 2010 (29 March)
  34. 1. DH, PH, PHPSU. Public health functions to be exercised by the NHS Commissioning Board. London: Department of Health, 2012 (15 November); 1-26
  35. Armstrong R. General Medical Services – Contractual Changes 2013/2014. Leeds: Department of Health, 2012 (6 December)
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  37. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) plc. Shingrix approved in Europe and Japan for the prevention of shingles in adults aged 50 and over. GSK Press Release London, 2018; Updated 23 Mar 2018; Accessed: 2018 (16 Jul): (
  38. Wareham DW, Breuer J. Herpes zoster. Br Med J 2007;334(7605):1211-1215. (May require subscription)
  39. Martin J Wood. History of Varicella Zoster Virus. International Herpes Management Forum Journal 2000:7(3);60-65

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