Reactivation of latent varicella zoster virus as herpes zoster is thought to result from waning of specific cell-mediated immunity, but little is known about its determinants in individuals with no underlying immunosuppression. We systematically reviewed studies of zoster epidemiology in adults and analysed data from a large morbidity study to identify factors that might be modulated to reduce the risk of zoster. Annual zoster incidence in population-based studies varied from 3.6-14.2/10(3) in the oldest individuals. Risk factors identified in analytical studies that could explain this variation included age, sex, ethnicity, genetic susceptibility, exogenous boosting of immunity from varicella contacts, underlying cell-mediated immune disorders, mechanical trauma, psychological stress, and immunotoxin exposure. Our review highlights the lack of information about risk factors for zoster. We suggest areas of research that could lead to interventions to limit the incidence of zoster. Such research might also help to identify risk factors for age-related immune decline.