Herpes Zoster (Shingles)

This information explains herpes zoster (shingles), including how it’s spread and treated.

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What is herpes zoster?

Herpes zoster, also called shingles, is an infection caused by the varicella virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Herpes zoster only develops in people who have had chickenpox in the past. After your chickenpox are gone, the varicella virus stays in your body as an inactive virus. This means that you may not feel symptoms, but the virus is still in your body. 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 like 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 carrying the virus are released into the air when the infected person coughs or sneezes. They can easily be inhaled (breathed in) and cause an infection.

If you have had chickenpox in the past, contact with a person who has herpes zoster won’t make your virus active. However, if you haven’t 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?

Isolation precautions are steps we take to stop infections from spreading from person to person. If you’re diagnosed with or exposed to chickenpox while you’re in the hospital:

  • You will be placed in a private room.
  • The door to your room must remain closed at all times.
  • A sign will be posted on your door telling all staff and visitors to clean their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before going into and after leaving your room.
  • 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. These are available outside of your room and can be disposed of inside your room.
    • For disseminated herpes zoster, visitors and staff must wear a yellow gown, gloves, and a respirator mask while in your room.
      • You can’t walk around in the unit while following these isolation precautions.
  • If you have either type of herpes zoster, you will not be able to walk around your unit, or 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
  • 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 can stop following 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 isn’t given to people with weakened immune systems. Your doctor can give you more information about this vaccine.

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Where can I get more information about herpes zoster?

If you have any questions, talk with your doctor or nurse. You can also visit the following websites for more information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

New York State Department of Health

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