The primary varicella zoster virus (VZV) infection results in chickenpox (varicella), which is transmitted via the airborne route. VZV is highly infectious, but in the USA the incidence of varicella has been reduced by 76-87% as a result of the varicella vaccine. The virus establishes latency in the dorsal root ganglia during varicella and, when reactivated, travels along the sensory nerve axons to cause shingles (herpes zoster [HZ]). There are over 1 million cases of HZ in the USA each year, with an estimated lifetime attack rate of 30%. The incidence of HZ, which causes significant morbidity, increases with age and reaches approximately 10 cases per 1,000 patient-years by age 80. Cell-mediated immunity (CMI) is known to decline with age as part of immunosenescence, and decreased CMI is associated with reactivation of VZV. This article provides an overview of our emerging understanding of the epidemiology and pathogenesis of varicella and HZ, in addition to exploring the current theories on latency and reactivation. Understanding the risk factors for developing HZ and the complications associated with infection, particularly in older people, is important for prompt diagnosis and management of HZ in primary care, and they are therefore also reviewed.
2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.