Clinical Overview


Herpes zoster, also known as shingles, is caused by reactivation of varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes varicella (chickenpox).

Primary infection with VZV causes varicella. After a person has varicella, the virus remains latent in the dorsal root ganglia. VZV can reactivate later in a person’s life and cause herpes zoster, a painful maculopapular and then vesicular rash.

Clinical Features

People with herpes zoster most commonly have a rash in one or two adjacent dermatomes. The rash most commonly appears on the trunk along a thoracic dermatome or on the face and it usually does not cross the body’s midline.

The rash is usually painful, itchy, or tingly. A person can experience the following symptoms several days before the rash appears:

  • Headache
  • Photophobia (sensitivity to bright light)
  • Malaise

The rash develops into clusters of vesicles. New vesicles continue to form over 3 to 5 days, and the rash progressively dries and scabs over. The rash usually heals in 2 to 4 weeks. Permanent skin discoloration and scarring can occur.


Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN)

PHN is the most common complication of herpes zoster. PHN is pain that persists in the area where the rash once was located and continues more than 90 days after rash onset. PHN can last for months or even years.

A person’s risk of having PHN after herpes zoster increases with age. Older adults are more likely to have longer lasting, more severe pain. Approximately 10% to 18% of people with herpes zoster will have PHN. PHN is rare in people younger than 40 years old. The likelihood of PHN is also higher in people who experience more pain with the rash or have a large rash.

Herpes zoster ophthalmicus

Herpes zoster that affects the ophthalmic division of the trigeminal nerve is called herpes zoster ophthalmicus. This can result in acute or chronic ocular sequelae, including vision loss.

Disseminated zoster

Disseminated zoster can include generalized skin eruptions where the lesions occur outside of the primary or adjacent dermatomes. It can be difficult to distinguish from varicella. Visceral involvement of the central nervous system (meningoencephalitis), lungs (pneumonitis), and liver (hepatitis) can also occur. Disseminated zoster generally occurs in people with compromised or suppressed immune systems.

Other complications of herpes zoster include:

  • Bacterial superinfection of the lesions, usually due to Staphylococcus aureus and, less commonly, due to group A beta hemolytic streptococcus
  • Cranial and peripheral nerve palsies

People with compromised or suppressed immune systems are more likely to have a severe, long-lasting rash and experience more severe complications from herpes zoster.


Recombinant zoster vaccine (RZV, Shingrix) is the recommended vaccine to prevent shingles and related complications. For information about vaccination recommendations see Shingles Vaccination.


People with active herpes zoster lesions can spread VZV , which causes varicella in people who never had varicella or never received varicella vaccine. Once varicella resolves, these people would be at risk for herpes zoster.

Active herpes zoster lesions are infectious through direct contact with vesicular fluid or through breathing in virus particles from the blisters until they dry and scab over. People with active herpes zoster lesions should cover their lesions and avoid contact with susceptible people in their household and in occupational settings until their lesions are dry and scabbed.

Also see Managing People at High Risk for Severe Varicella and Preventing VZV Transmission from Herpes Zoster in Healthcare Settings

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Risk Factors

Anyone who had varicella can develop herpes zoster. Approximately 99.5% of people born before 1980 in the United States were infected with wild-type VZV. Children who receive varicella vaccine have a lower risk of herpes zoster compared with children who were infected with wild-type VZV.

Approximately 1 in 3 people in the United States will develop herpes zoster during their lifetime. Most people have only one episode; however, herpes zoster can recur.

A person’s risk for herpes zoster and related complications sharply increases after 50 years of age. The reasons why VZV reactivates and causes herpes zoster are not well understood. However, a person’s risk for herpes zoster increases as their VZV-specific cell-mediated immunity declines. This decline in immunity can result from increasing age and medical conditions or medications that suppress a person’s immune system. People with the following conditions that compromise or suppress their immune system have an increased risk for herpes zoster:

  • Bone marrow or solid organ (renal, cardiac, liver, and lung) transplant recipients
  • Cancer, especially leukemia and lymphoma
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Taking immunosuppressive medications, including steroids, such as for treatment of autoimmune diseases and other immune system deficiencies

Other potential risk factors for herpes zoster have been identified, but the findings are either inconsistent or unexplained. For example:

  • More women than men develop herpes zoster.
  • Herpes zoster is less common in Blacks than in Whites.

Disease Rates

An estimated one million cases of herpes zoster occur annually in the United States.

  • The incidence of herpes zoster varies by age and is approximately 2–9 cases per 1,000 US population annually.

The precise incidence of recurrence is not known.


  • Approximately 10% to 18% of people with herpes zoster will have PHN.
  • Approximately 1% to 4% of people with herpes zoster are hospitalized for complications.
  • Older adults and people with compromised or suppressed immune systems are more likely to be hospitalized. About 30% of people hospitalized with herpes zoster have compromised or suppressed immune systems.


One study estimated 96 deaths occur each year where herpes zoster was the underlying cause (0.28 to 0.69 per 1 million population). Almost all the deaths occurred in older adults or those with compromised or suppressed immune systems.


Herpes zoster rates among adults in the United States gradually increased over a long period of time. We do not know the reason for this increase. However, the rates across age groups have recently plateaued or declined.

CDC studies have found that herpes zoster rates started increasing before varicella vaccine was introduced in the U.S. and did not accelerate after the routine varicella vaccination program started.

Herpes Zoster in People Who Received Varicella Vaccine

Varicella vaccines contain live attenuated VZV, which results in latent infection. Although herpes zoster has always been uncommon among children, the rate of herpes zoster in U.S. children has declined since the routine varicella vaccination program started in 1996.

  • Children (healthy and immunocompromised) vaccinated against varicella have lower rates of herpes zoster compared to children who had natural infection with varicella.
    • Vaccinated children are less likely to become infected with wild-type VZV.
    • The risk of reactivation of vaccine-strain VZV in children is lower compared with reactivation of wild-type VZV.
  • Few older adults have received the varicella vaccine since it was licensed in 1995. There is very little information on the risk of herpes zoster in people who got varicella vaccine as adults.

CDC continues to monitor the impacts of the U.S. varicella and herpes zoster vaccination programs among adults and children.


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