A zoster virus is a member of the Herpesviridae family. Varicella zoster is a form which can cause chickenpox, and it can also remain latent in the body, causing herpes zoster, a painful condition which is also known as shingles. While the zoster virus is a member of the herpes family, it is not the same thing as genital herpes, and it is not transmitted through sexual contact.
In children, infection with varicells zoster leads to the development of chickenpox, a condition which eventually clears on its own, but the virus remains in the nervous system. In some cases, the virus can awaken from its dormant state and cause problems with the nervous system, characterized by painful skin outbreaks. Herpes zoster can appear over and over again, and it can have some very serious complications, including neuropathy.
There is no way to predict when a herpes zoster outbreak will occur in someone who harbors the zoster virus. Depression of the immune system appears to make outbreaks more common, as do factors such as stress. In some people, an outbreak is experienced once and it never recurs, while others may develop shingles on multiple occasions. The zoster virus can be controlled in the body with the use of antiviral drugs which are designed to suppress outbreaks.
Some individuals with a latent zoster virus infection develop conditions which are different from shingles. In some cases, the virus attacks the nerves of the eye, and it can also demyelinate nerves, causing profound neurological problems including paralysis and constant pain. Encephalitis can also develop as a result of zoster infection, as can problems with the ears and face.
Varicella zoster is highly contagious, and it is a very common childhood infection. As a result, many people carry the zoster virus in a dormant form in their bodies. Adults who have not been infected with chickenpox may opt to receive a vaccine which introduces antibodies so that they cannot be infected, as cases of chickenpox in adults can be very severe or even deadly. Someone who has not had chickenpox can develop it after coming into contact with a shingles patient who has open sores.
Pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems such as AIDS patients and cancer patients, and the elderly can experience very serious complications as a result of a zoster virus flareup. It is important to receive the appropriate treatment, and to take prophylactic antiviral drugs if a doctor recommends the use of such drugs.