Herpes Zoster (Shingles)

This information describes herpes zoster (shingles), including how it is spread and treated.

What is herpes zoster?

Herpes zoster, also called shingles, is an infection caused by the varicella virus. It only develops in people who have had chickenpox in the past. After chickenpox is gone, the varicella virus stays in the body as an inactive virus. When the varicella virus becomes active again, it causes herpes zoster.

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What are the symptoms of herpes zoster?

People with herpes zoster develop a rash that looks similar to chickenpox. It can cause itching, burning, and pain.

With localized herpes zoster, the rash usually appears as a wide strip on one side of the body. With disseminated (more widespread) herpes zoster, the rash covers a wider area of the body.

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How is herpes zoster spread?

Herpes zoster can be spread by touching an infected person’s blisters. Disseminated herpes zoster can be spread through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of someone who is infected. The droplets move through the air when the person coughs or sneezes.

If you have had chickenpox in the past, contact with a person who has herpes zoster will not make your virus active. However, if you have not had chickenpox in the past, you can get it if you have contact with a person who has herpes zoster.

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Who is at risk for herpes zoster?

Herpes zoster usually develops in people who have serious illnesses or weakened immune systems.

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What is the treatment for herpes zoster?

Herpes zoster can be treated with antiviral medication, skin creams, and pain medication, if needed.

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What precautions are taken in the hospital if I have herpes zoster?

  • If herpes zoster is suspected or diagnosed, you will be placed in a private room.
  • A sign will be posted on the door telling all staff and visitors to take precautions.
  • All staff and visitors must clean their hands before going into and after leaving your room. They can use soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Isolation precautions for localized and disseminated herpes zoster are different.
    • For localized herpes zoster, all visitors and staff must wear a yellow gown and gloves in your room. If you walk around the unit, you must wear a yellow gown and gloves.
    • For disseminated herpes zoster, visitors and staff must wear a yellow gown, gloves, and a respirator mask while in your room.
    • You cannot walk around in the unit while following these isolation precautions.
  • If you have either type of herpes zoster, you cannot go to the following areas of the hospital:
    • Pantry on your unit
    • Recreation center on M15
    • Pediatric recreation areas on M9
    • Cafeteria
    • Main lobby
    • Any other public area of the hospital
  • While following isolation precautions, you can have art or massage therapy in your room.
  • If you leave your room for tests, you must wear a yellow gown and gloves. If you have disseminated herpes zoster, you also will have to wear a mask.
  • You will no longer have to follow these precautions when all your blisters are dried and crusted.
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Is there any way to prevent herpes zoster?

There is a vaccine called ZOSTAVAX® that prevents herpes zoster. This vaccine is recommended for people 60 years of age and older, but is not given to people with weakened immune systems. Your doctor can give you more information about this vaccine.

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