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What Is Disseminated Herpes Zoster?

By J.M. Willhite
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Disseminated herpes zoster is a complication of the herpes zoster virus. Often affecting individuals with compromised immunity, it occurs when the virus spreads throughout the body. Sometimes necessitating hospitalization, treatment for disseminated herpes zoster involves the administration of medications, including steroidal and antiviral drugs, to ease symptoms and prevent complications.

A diagnosis of disseminated herpes zoster is generally made with a visual examination. The tell-tale rash is difficult to mistake. Additional testing is generally performed if the blisters appear to be infected to rule out other conditions, such as dermatitis. It is important to note, there is no cure for herpes zoster, commonly known as shingles. Following an episode of shingles, the infection lies dormant in one’s system and may flare periodically.

Herpes zoster is a painful condition initiated by exposure to the varicella-zoster virus. Under normal circumstances, the herpes zoster virus presents as a rash that lasts upwards of a month. Blisters form, break and scab over. Though painful, with proper treatment, the rash remains localized to areas that may involve the face and torso and subsides with little to no complication. Individuals with compromised immunity are considered at greatest risk for disseminated herpes zoster, or systemic shingles, which can affect overall organ health and function.

Those with disseminated shingles experience severe, widespread rash development that can last longer than a single month. The rash is accompanied by pronounced symptoms that include fever, malaise and fatigue. In the case of widespread shingles, the rash can extend across the torso to the back and shoulders, often necessitating the use of a topical analgesic cream to alleviate discomfort. Additional symptoms can include accentuated joint discomfort, intense abdominal discomfort that may or may not be accompanied by nausea and a persistent headache.

In situations where an individual is immunosuppressed, it is not impossible for the herpes zoster virus to affect the central nervous system. Widespread herpes zoster can easily progress to encephalitis, which is a potentially fatal inflammation of the nervous system, including the spinal cord. A systemic infection may also penetrate the bloodstream, resulting in sepsis. Other organs that may be affected include the pancreas, intestines and heart.

Immuno-compromised individuals with disseminated herpes zoster are generally hospitalized to prevent complications. Intravenous drug therapy, including antiviral medications, is administered to alleviate the infection and reduce inflammation. Individuals with certain conditions, such as HIV, may be placed on long-term drug treatment to prevent recurrent herpes zoster flares and complications.

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Discussion Comments
By anon337161 — On Jun 03, 2013

I was diagnosed with herpes zoster in February, and the blisters on my right hand lasted for a month.

After three months, I still experience pain on my shoulders and lower back. I also have frequent fever, lasting for four or five days, and headaches, accompanied by fatigue. Could it be disseminated herpes zoster?

By burcinc — On Mar 31, 2013

@ankara-- I think there is some confusion because as far as I know, the virus that causes disseminated shingles is different from HSV-1 or HSV-2. It's still related to the herpes simplex virus, but it's a different type. The virus is called varicella zoster virus.

So someone who has HSV-1 or HSV-2 will not develop disseminated shingles from it. You have to be infected with the varicella zoster virus.

There is a herpes zoster vaccine available. Also, if you had chicken pox as a child, you are less likely to develop disseminated shingles.

By ysmina — On Mar 30, 2013

@ankara-- The rash appears on different parts of the body, not just in one area.

Do you also have itching and pins and needles?

You should get checked out by a doctor. I'm not a medical professional but I don't think you have disseminated herpes zoster. Herpes zoster is a very serious condition. I had a relative almost die from it.

If you truly had symptoms of herpes zoster show up a week ago, I'm sure you would have been hospitalized by now. You're probably experiencing a typical flare-up. You can look at herpes zoster pictures online, I'm sure you'll know what I mean then.

By bluedolphin — On Mar 30, 2013

Does disseminated herpes zoster cause blisters only in one area or all over the body?

I do carry type 2 herpes virus and last week I broke out in a rash in my genital area. It's more serious than my prior breakouts and I also feel feverish and extremely fatigued. Could I have dissseminated herpes zoster?

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