What is Herpes Zoster (Shingles)?

Herpes Zoster also known more commonly as Shingles is an outbreak of a blister type rash caused by the Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV). This is the same virus that earlier on, prior to us developing Shingles caused us to have Chickenpox.

Anyone who has ever had Chickenpox can develop Shingles.  Once an episode of Chickenpox has resolved the virus is never eliminated from the body. The Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV) just becomes dormant in the nerve cells (and less frequently in the dorsal root or cranial nerve) without causing any symptoms. Years after the initial Chickenpox outbreak the virus can be reactivated to cause Shingles, an illness with very different symptoms from Chickenpox.

Although the rash usually heals within two to four weeks, some sufferers experience residual nerve pain for months or years, a condition called Post Herpetic Neuralgia or PHN for short. Exactly how the virus remains dormant in the body, and subsequently re-activates is not fully understood but is thought to be due to ageing, after trauma, stress, illness, bereavement or at any time when the immune system is at its lowest.



What happens when the virus reactivates?

If the Zoster virus ever reactivates (which can be years after Chickenpox) it breaks out of nerve cell bodies and travels along the nerve fibres to the skin where it multiplies and the Shingles rash finally erupts. Because it travels along the nerves, there can often be nerve pain and tingling a few days before any rash appears. Often at prior to this you may feel abnormally tired as well. Although the rash usually heals within two to four weeks, some sufferers experience residual nerve pain for months or years, a condition called Post Herpetic Neuralgia or PHN for short.


Why does the virus reactivate after being dormant?

Exactly how the virus remains dormant in the body, and subsequently re-activates is not fully understood but is thought to be due to ageing, where the immune system weakens or after trauma, stress, illness, bereavement hormonal changes or at any time when the immune system is again at its lowest.


Where can the Shingles appear?

The most common parts of the body for Shingles to appear are on the trunk, back and buttocks as the virus spreads from one or more ganglia in the spine along nerves and infect the corresponding dermatome; an area of skin which is supplied by one spinal nerve. This commonly causes the painful rash to appear in one patch or a number of patches running in a line.

Shingles can also appear on other parts of the body if nerves in those areas are involved i.e. arms, legs or even the face and head (**Ramsay Hunt Syndrome). Sometimes it can affect the eye known as Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus and should these symptoms occur medical attention should be sought immediately.

**Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a painful rash around the ear that occurs when the varicella zoster virus infects a nerve in the head. Symptoms: Painful rash on the eardrum, ear canal, earlobe, tongue, roof of the mouth (palate)


Is Herpes Zoster (Shingles) infectious?

The Shingles virus can be transmitted from one person to another, but in a slightly complicated way. Someone with Shingles passes the virus to another person but only if they haven’t had Chickenpox and that person will only develop Chickenpox and not Shingles. The clear fluid from the blisters is the infectious agent that transmits and passes the virus, so take care not to touch those if you haven’t had Chickenpox yourself.


Is Herpes Zoster (Shingles) the same virus as Herpes Simplex the Common Cold Sore?

Despite being similar in name, Herpes Zoster (Shingles) is not the same as Herpes Simplex (Common Cold Sore) although both the Varicella Zoster Virus and Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) belong to the same viral family, Alpha Herpes Virinae.

There are two types of HSV:

  • HSV type 1 most commonly causes Cold Sores but can also cause genital herpes.
  • HSV type 2 is the usual cause of genital herpes but can also infect the mouth

Who Can Get Herpes Zoster?

Most medical websites, Doctor’s or Professional’s state that this is a virus that only occurs in:

The elderly and those with compromised immune systems i.e. pregnant woman, people with immune system disorders, HIV or those receiving Cancer treatments.

However, it is possible that anyone of any age group can be vulnerable to the Herpes Zoster Virus. In fact it is now being recorded that more and more people, even as young as 10 are diagnosed with Shingles and Recurrent Shingles than ever before.


I think I have had Shingles more than once, is this possible?

Many Doctors are of the opinion that it is not possible for Shingles to recur once healed but this seems to be incorrect as more and more people are suffering with Recurrent Shingles now than ever before.

If you do go on to experience Recurrent Shingles then you should consider a suitable change to your lifestyle and diet, many people find that this really can and does help.


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