Definition of Herpes zoster

Herpes zoster – an infection that results from reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, which lies dormant in the spinal nerve roots after causing chickenpox.

The virus can remain dormant for decades; doctors do not know what reactivates it though suspect a combination of aging and stress to the immune system. The infection travels the tract of a spinal nerve to the skin, causing burning or pain as it makes its way to the body’s surface.

Called the prodrome, this discomfort yields in about two days to a rash of painful blisters that erupts along the nerve’s pathway, called a dermatome. The blisters rupture in three to five days and crusted sores form at the sites of the blisters.

Treatment and Symptoms of Herpes Zoster

Herpes zoster, also called shingles, occurs only on one side of the body, most commonly on the chest though may affect dermatomes anywhere on the body. The blisters of the herpes zoster outbreak can spread the virus, which can cause chickenpox in people who have not had it or have not received the varicella vaccine.

An uncomplicated outbreak of herpes zoster runs its course in three to four weeks, after which the virus again goes dormant. Treatment with an antiviral medication taken at the onset of pain but before blisters emerge (the prodrome) can significantly shorten the course of illness and decrease the severity of symptoms.

Antiviral Medications to Treat Herpes Zoster

ANTIVIRAL MEDICATIONS TO TREAT HERPES ZOSTER
acyclovirdesciclovir
famciclovirpenciclovir
valacyclovir

Complications of Treatment

Complications after the outbreak abates may include damage to the eyes, loss of taste, and partial paralysis of the face when the outbreak involves the trigeminal nerve. Post-herpetic neuralgia is pain that persists along the dermatome after the sores have completely healed, and may be debilitating.

Unlike its predecessor infection, chickenpox, herpes zoster can recur though usually does not.

See also AGING, EFFECTS ON IMMUNE RESPONSEBLISTERGENITAL HERPESHERPES SIMPLEX; SPINAL NERVES.

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