What Is Shingles (Herpes Zoster)?

Shingles is a painful red rash with blisters that break open and then scab over. It is caused by the herpes zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chicken pox.

After you have had chicken pox, the virus stays in your body’s nerve cells. It may remain dormant (not active) and you will not have any symptoms. But sometimes the virus becomes active again and causes new problems.

Herpes zoster can become active again as you get older, particularly over age 50. This can be due to your body’s natural aging process. Or it can be due to anything that weakens your immune system. Here are some of those things:

  • illness or disease (such as HIV or other diseases of the immune system)
  • fatigue or exhaustion
  • stress or anxiety
  • poor nutrition
  • chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  • certain medicines that suppress your immune system, such as corticosteroids or cyclosporins

Avoid spreading the shingles virus

Herpes zoster can be contagious (passed from person to person). But it can only be passed to others who have not had chicken pox. Someone newly infected with the herpes zoster virus will then develop chicken pox, not shingles.

If you have shingles, avoid being around people who may be more easily infected. This includes infants, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.