Stress-induced Subclinical Reactivation of Varicella Zoster Virus in Astronauts

J Med Virol. 2004 Jan;72(1):174-9. doi: 10.1002/jmv.10555.


Varicella zoster virus (VZV) becomes latent in human ganglia after primary infection. VZV reactivation occurs primarily in elderly individuals, organ transplant recipients, and patients with cancer and AIDS, correlating with a specific decline in cell-mediated immunity to the virus. VZV can also reactivate after surgical stress. The unexpected occurrence of thoracic zoster 2 days before space flight in a 47-year-old healthy astronaut from a pool of 81 physically fit astronauts prompted our search for VZV reactivation during times of stress to determine whether VZV can also reactivate after non-surgical stress. We examined total DNA extracted from 312 saliva samples of eight astronauts before, during, and after space flight for VZV DNA by polymerase chain reaction: 112 samples were obtained 234-265 days before flight, 84 samples on days 2 through 13 of space flight, and 116 samples on days 1 through 15 after flight. Before space flight, only one of the 112 saliva samples from a single astronaut was positive for VZV DNA. In contrast, during and after space flight, 61 of 200 (30%) saliva samples were positive in all eight astronauts. No VZV DNA was detected in any of 88 saliva samples from 10 healthy control subjects. These results indicate that VZV can reactivate subclinically in healthy individuals after non-surgical stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Astronauts*
  • DNA, Viral / analysis
  • Female
  • Herpes Zoster / virology*
  • Herpesvirus 3, Human / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Saliva / virology
  • Space Flight
  • Stress, Physiological*
  • Virus Activation*


  • DNA, Viral