Herpes zoster is infection that results when varicella-zoster virus reactivates from its latent state in a posterior dorsal root ganglion. Symptoms usually begin with pain along the affected dermatome, followed in 2 to 3 days by a vesicular eruption that is usually diagnostic. Treatment is antiviral drugs given within 72 h after skin lesions appear.
Herpes zoster is suspected in patients with the characteristic rash and sometimes in patients with typical pain in a dermatomal distribution. Diagnosis is usually based on the virtually pathognomonic rash. If the diagnosis is equivocal, detecting multinucleate giant cells with a Tzanck test can confirm infection, but the Tzanck test is positive with herpes zoster or herpes simplex. Herpes simplex virus (HSV) may cause nearly identical lesions, but unlike herpes zoster, HSV tends to recur and is not dermatomal. Viruses can be differentiated by culture or PCR. Antigen detection from a biopsy sample can be useful.