Varicella-zoster virus

Clin Microbiol Rev. 1996 Jul;9(3):361-81. doi: 10.1128/CMR.9.3.361.


Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is a ubiquitous human alphaherpesvirus that causes varicella (chicken pox) and herpes zoster (shingles). Varicella is a common childhood illness, characterized by fever, viremia, and scattered vesicular lesions of the skin. As is characteristic of the alphaherpesviruses, VZV establishes latency in cells of the dorsal root ganglia. Herpes zoster, caused by VZV reactivation, is a localized, painful, vesicular rash involving one or adjacent dermatomes. The incidence of herpes zoster increases with age or immunosuppression. The VZV virion consists of a nucleocapsid surrounding a core that contains the linear, double-stranded DNA genome; a protein tegument separates the capsid from the lipid envelope, which incorporates the major viral glycoproteins. VZV is found in a worldwide geographic distribution but is more prevalent in temperate climates. Primary VZV infection elicits immunoglobulin G (IgG), IgM, and IgA antibodies, which bind to many classes of viral proteins. Virus-specific cellular immunity is critical for controlling viral replication in healthy and immunocompromised patients with primary or recurrent VZV infections. Rapid laboratory confirmation of the diagnosis of varicella or herpes zoster, which can be accomplished by detecting viral proteins or DNA, is important to determine the need for antiviral therapy. Acyclovir is licensed for treatment of varicella and herpes zoster, and acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir are approved for herpes zoster. Passive antibody prophylaxis with varicella-zoster immune globulin is indicated for susceptible high-risk patients exposed to varicella. A live attenuated varicella vaccine (Oka/Merck strain) is now recommended for routine childhood immunization.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acyclovir / therapeutic use
  • Antibody Formation
  • Antiviral Agents / therapeutic use
  • Chickenpox / diagnosis
  • Chickenpox / drug therapy
  • Chickenpox / etiology*
  • Chickenpox / prevention & control
  • Contraindications
  • Herpes Zoster / diagnosis
  • Herpes Zoster / drug therapy
  • Herpes Zoster / etiology*
  • Herpes Zoster / prevention & control
  • Herpesvirus 3, Human / immunology
  • Herpesvirus 3, Human / pathogenicity*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Cellular
  • Immunization, Passive
  • Serology
  • Vaccination
  • Vaccines, Attenuated


  • Antiviral Agents
  • Vaccines, Attenuated
  • Acyclovir