What is herpes zoster (shingles)?

Updated: Jan 25, 2019
  • Author: Camila K Janniger, MD; Chief Editor: Dirk M Elston, MD  more...
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Answer

Herpes zoster is viral infection that occurs with reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. It is usually a painful but self-limited dermatomal rash. Symptoms typically start with pain along the affected dermatome, which is followed in 2-3 days by a vesicular eruption. Classic physical findings include painful grouped herpetiform vesicles on an erythematous base. Treatment includes antiviral medications such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir given within 72 hours of symptom onset.

Reactivation of varicella-zoster virus (VZV) that has remained dormant within dorsal root ganglia, often for decades after the patient’s initial exposure to the virus in the form of varicella (chickenpox), results in herpes zoster (shingles). [1] While usually a self-limited rash with pain, it can be far more serious; in addition, acute cases often lead to postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) and is responsible for a significant economic burden. [2] See the image below.

Herpes zoster, unilateral, on trunk. Herpes zoster, unilateral, on trunk.

See 14 Rashes You Need to Know: Common Dermatologic Diagnoses, a Critical Images slideshow, for help identifying and treating various rashes.


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