Varicella zoster virus (VZV) is a herpes virus that causes the chicken pox in children and shingles in adults. VZV first enters the body either through the respiratory tract or the eyes, and later infects the nervous system. Symptoms of fever and general discomfort are noticed between 10-21 days after initial exposure to the virus. A characteristic rash with red, spotted lesions will then appear in several stages, often spreading from the head downwards to the arms and legs. The rash will be more severe when seen in adults than in children.
Symptoms are most common in the winter and early spring. The disease may be spread through the air or by direct contact with infected individuals at any time until their rash has dried into crusted lesions. After symptoms clear, VZV remains inactive (latent) in nerves and results in lifetime immunity for most people. Reactivation later in life results in shingles (herpes zoster), which occurs in 50% of people by age 85. Shingles is most common in the elderly with weakened immune systems and who were exposed to VZV either while in the womb or at less than 18 months of age.
Complications occur most commonly in individuals younger than 1 year or older than 15 years of age, and in those with weakened immune systems due to other health problems. Complications are often caused by bacterial or viral infection of the skin lesions, especially in young children. Aseptic meningitis is the most common complication that affects the central nervous system, and will generally have mild symptoms. Encephalitis is a rarer and more serious complication that may result in seizures or coma.
Hospitalizations and complications from VZV have decreased since the introduction of the vaccine. Those affected with VZV should not take aspirin, as it may result in Reye’s syndrome, a serious condition that causes brain death and liver damage. If you have been diagnosed with VZV, talk to your doctor about the current treatment options.