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Shingles and the Herpes Zoster Virus

You may not realize that if you have ever suffered from chickenpox (and most people have) you are at risk of developing Herpes Zoster. 

Herpes zoster (which is more commonly known as shingles) is a viral infection caused by the reactivation of the dormant virus in the nerves of people who have previously had chickenpox. This can be many years after first catching chickenpox.

Shingles and chickenpox are part of the same virus. After you have had chickenpox (usually as a child) the virus that causes the chickenpox stays in your body in certain nerve cells.

Most of the time your immune system confines the chickenpox virus to these cells. Therefore, shingles only occurs in those who have already had chickenpox but it can unfortunately occur more than once. You may have further attacks of shingles, especially at times when you are run down such as after a serious illness or an operation. These attacks may affect different parts of the body on different occasions.

Approximately half a million cases of shingles occur in the United States alone each year and some twenty five per cent of people will develop shingles in their lifetime and usually when they are elderly.  Occasionally, it can occur in younger men and women and especially those suffering from some form of immune deficiency. So you cannot catch shingles from another person even if they have chickenpox and you can only develop it if you have already had chickenpox. It is not known what causes the reactivation of the chickenpox virus.  However, ensuring that your immune system remains strong and healthy can help to prevent this virus occurring.

If you are suffering from shingles, you should stay away from other people until the blisters have dried (usually about seven days).  The reason for this is that there are virus particles in the blister fluid and those people who have not had chickenpox might catch chickenpox from you. 

Particularly at risk for catching chickenpox or (if they have previously had chickenpox) developing shingles are the elderly as well as people whose immune system is not functioning normally as for example those on steroids, those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, those who have had transplant operations or those living with AIDS. In all these instances, the virus may break free from the nerve cells and cause shingles.