Varicella-Zoster Virus-Introduction, Morphology, Pathogenicity, Lab Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, and Keynotes

Varicella-Zoster Virus-Introduction, Morphology, Pathogenicity, Lab Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention, and Keynotes

Introduction of Varicella-Zoster Virus 

Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV) is a human herpesvirus responsible for causing two distinct diseases: chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (herpes zoster). It is a highly contagious virus that belongs to the Herpesviridae family. Here is an introduction to the Varicella-Zoster Virus:

  1. Nature of the Virus: VZV is a DNA virus, meaning it contains genetic material in the form of double-stranded DNA. It is one of the eight known human herpesviruses.
  2. Primary Infection – Chickenpox (Varicella):
    • Transmission: Chickenpox is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread through direct contact with the rash or fluid from the chickenpox blisters.
    • Symptoms: Chickenpox typically presents with a characteristic itchy skin rash, along with fever, fatigue, and general malaise.
    • Complications: While chickenpox is usually a mild disease in healthy children, it can lead to more severe complications in certain populations, such as pregnant women, newborns, and individuals with weakened immune systems.
  3. Latent Infection:
    • After the initial infection, VZV becomes dormant (latent) in the sensory nerve ganglia, such as the dorsal root ganglia, along the spinal cord.
    • The virus remains inactive for many years but can reactivate later in life, leading to shingles.
  4. Reactivation – Shingles (Herpes Zoster):
    • Transmission: Shingles does not spread from person to person through respiratory droplets like chickenpox. Instead, it occurs when the latent virus reactivates.
    • Symptoms: Shingles is characterized by a painful, blistering skin rash along a single dermatome (a specific nerve pathway). The rash typically follows a band-like pattern on one side of the body.
    • Postherpetic Neuralgia: Shingles can be particularly painful, and some individuals may experience postherpetic neuralgia, a persistent pain that can last long after the rash has healed.
  5. Prevention:
    • Vaccination: Varicella vaccines are available and have been successful in reducing the incidence of chickenpox. The vaccine is also used as a part of the MMRV (measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella) combination vaccine.
    • Shingles Vaccine: A shingles vaccine, known as the herpes zoster vaccine, is recommended for older adults to reduce the risk of shingles and its complications.
  6. Diagnosis and Treatment:
    • Diagnosis of both chickenpox and shingles is primarily based on clinical symptoms and can be confirmed through laboratory tests.
    • Antiviral medications, such as acyclovir, are commonly prescribed to reduce the severity and duration of symptoms in cases of chickenpox and shingles.

Morphology of Varicella-Zoster Virus 

Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV) is a member of the herpesvirus family, and like other herpesviruses, it exhibits a characteristic morphology when viewed under an electron microscope. Here’s an overview of the morphology of Varicella-Zoster Virus:

  1. Virion Structure:
    • VZV virions (virus particles) are enveloped, which means they have an outer lipid bilayer membrane surrounding their core.
    • The lipid envelope is studded with viral glycoproteins that play a role in attachment and entry into host cells.
    • Inside the envelope is the nucleocapsid, which contains the viral genome.
  2. Nucleocapsid:
    • The nucleocapsid of VZV is icosahedral in shape, meaning it has a roughly spherical structure with 20 triangular faces.
    • It houses the viral genetic material, which is a linear, double-stranded DNA genome.
  3. Genome:
    • The VZV genome is relatively large for a DNA virus, consisting of approximately 125,000 base pairs.
    • It encodes numerous viral genes responsible for various aspects of the virus’s replication, pathogenesis, and immune evasion.
  4. Capsid:
    • The nucleocapsid is surrounded by an icosahedral protein capsid, which helps protect the viral genome.
    • The capsid is made up of viral proteins and is located within the envelope.
  5. Envelope:
    • The envelope of VZV is derived from the host cell membrane as the virus exits the host cell during replication.
    • It contains viral glycoproteins that are important for attachment to host cells and the fusion of the viral envelope with the host cell membrane during entry.
  6. Size:
    • VZV virions have a relatively large size compared to many other viruses. They typically measure around 150-200 nanometers (nm) in diameter.

Pathogenicity of Varicella-Zoster Virus 

The pathogenicity of the Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV) is responsible for causing two distinct diseases in humans: chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (herpes zoster). The pathogenicity of VZV is a result of its ability to establish both acute and latent infections in the human host. Here’s an overview of the pathogenicity of VZV:

  1. Primary Infection – Chickenpox (Varicella):
    • Transmission: VZV is highly contagious and primarily spreads through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
    • Initial Infection: When VZV enters the body, it infects mucous membranes, replicates in the local lymph nodes, and subsequently enters the bloodstream, leading to a viremia.
    • Systemic Symptoms: Viremia results in the widespread dissemination of the virus throughout the body, leading to fever, malaise, and other systemic symptoms.
    • Skin Rash: VZV causes characteristic skin lesions (papules, vesicles, and pustules) due to its ability to infect skin cells. These lesions are intensely itchy.
  2. Latent Infection:
    • After the primary infection (chickenpox), VZV establishes latency in the sensory nerve ganglia, primarily the dorsal root ganglia along the spinal cord.
    • In the latent state, the virus remains dormant within sensory neurons, with viral DNA integrated into the host genome.
    • Immune control mechanisms typically keep the virus in check during latency.
  3. Reactivation – Shingles (Herpes Zoster):
    • Reactivation can occur later in life due to various factors, including age, stress, or immune system weakening.
    • The reactivated virus travels down the sensory nerves to the skin, causing a painful and localized skin rash that follows a dermatome (a specific nerve pathway).
    • The rash typically consists of vesicles and can be associated with severe pain.
  4. Pathophysiology:
    • VZV causes cellular damage in the skin and sensory neurons during both primary infection and reactivation.
    • The immune response plays a role in controlling the virus but can also contribute to tissue damage and symptoms.
    • Postherpetic neuralgia, a complication of shingles, is characterized by persistent pain in the affected area due to nerve damage.
  5. Complications:
    • While chickenpox is usually a mild disease in healthy individuals, it can lead to complications such as bacterial skin infections, pneumonia, encephalitis, and, rarely, severe disease in certain populations.
    • Shingles can be associated with complications, including postherpetic neuralgia, bacterial skin infections, and less commonly, involvement of other organs like the eyes (herpes zoster ophthalmicus) or the central nervous system.

Lab Diagnosis of Varicella-Zoster Virus 

The laboratory diagnosis of Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV) typically involves various tests and techniques to detect the presence of the virus or its antibodies in patient samples. Depending on the clinical presentation and the stage of the infection (acute or latent/reactivated), different laboratory methods may be employed. Here are some common lab diagnostic methods for VZV:

  1. Direct Detection of VZV DNA or RNA:
    • Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR): PCR is a highly sensitive and specific molecular technique used to amplify and detect VZV DNA or RNA from clinical specimens. It is commonly employed for diagnosing both chickenpox and shingles. PCR can be performed on samples like skin lesions, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), or respiratory secretions.
  2. Virus Isolation:
    • Virus Culture: VZV can be cultured from clinical specimens such as skin vesicle fluid, throat swabs, or CSF. However, virus culture is a relatively slow method and is less commonly used in comparison to molecular techniques.
  3. Serological Tests:
    • Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA): ELISA tests can detect VZV-specific antibodies (IgM and IgG) in a patient’s blood sample. IgM antibodies are indicative of an acute infection, while IgG antibodies suggest previous exposure or vaccination. ELISA tests are useful for diagnosing both chickenpox and shingles.
    • Immunofluorescence Assay (IFA): IFA can also detect VZV-specific antibodies in patient sera. It is used for both IgM and IgG detection and can be particularly useful for confirming acute VZV infections.
  4. Tzanck Smear:
    • A Tzanck smear is a simple, rapid diagnostic test in which material from a skin lesion (such as a vesicle or blister) is collected, stained, and examined under a microscope. It can reveal characteristic multinucleated giant cells, which are suggestive of VZV infection.
  5. Direct Immunofluorescence (DFA):
    • DFA is used to detect VZV antigens in skin lesions. This method involves staining a specimen with fluorescent antibodies that bind specifically to VZV antigens. It is often used for rapid diagnosis of herpes zoster in skin lesions.
  6. Molecular Genotyping:
    • Genotyping of VZV strains can be performed to track the source and spread of the virus during outbreaks or to differentiate between wild-type strains and vaccine strains. This is often done by sequencing specific regions of the VZV genome.
  7. Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) Analysis:
    • If central nervous system involvement is suspected, CSF analysis may be performed. Detection of VZV DNA in CSF by PCR can confirm VZV-associated neurological diseases such as VZV meningitis or encephalitis.

The choice of diagnostic test depends on the clinical presentation of the patient and the specific circumstances of the suspected VZV infection. A combination of tests, including PCR for acute infections and serological tests for immunity assessment, is often used for comprehensive diagnosis. It’s essential to consult with healthcare professionals and laboratory experts to determine the most appropriate testing strategy for a particular case.


The treatment of Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV) infections, including chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (herpes zoster), typically involves managing symptoms, reducing complications, and promoting recovery. Here are the key aspects of treatment for VZV infections:

  1. Chickenpox (Varicella):
    • Symptomatic Relief: Treatment for chickenpox primarily focuses on relieving symptoms and discomfort. This may include taking over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (paracetamol) to reduce fever and alleviate pain and itching. Avoid using aspirin in children with viral infections due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.
    • Antiviral Medication: Antiviral drugs, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, or famciclovir, may be prescribed in severe cases or for individuals at higher risk of complications, such as adults and immunocompromised individuals. These drugs can shorten the duration and severity of the illness when given early in the course of the infection.
    • Topical Treatments: Calamine lotion, oatmeal baths, and cool compresses can help soothe itching associated with chickenpox skin rashes.
    • Hydration: Ensuring that the affected person stays well-hydrated is important, especially if there is a high fever.
    • Isolation: Infected individuals should be isolated from others, especially pregnant women and individuals with weakened immune systems, to prevent the spread of the virus.
  2. Shingles (Herpes Zoster):
    • Antiviral Medication: Antiviral drugs, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, or famciclovir, are commonly prescribed for individuals with shingles. These medications can reduce the severity and duration of symptoms, especially if started within the first 72 hours of the rash’s appearance.
    • Pain Management: Pain is a prominent symptom of shingles, and over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers may be recommended. In some cases, nerve pain medications like gabapentin or pregabalin may be prescribed.
    • Topical Treatments: Topical creams or ointments containing capsaicin or lidocaine may provide relief from localized pain.
    • Cool Compresses: Applying cool, moist compresses to the affected area can help alleviate discomfort.
    • Preventing Complications: Shingles can sometimes lead to complications, including postherpetic neuralgia (persistent pain) and skin infections. Early antiviral treatment can reduce the risk of these complications.
    • Vaccination: The herpes zoster vaccine, often known as the shingles vaccine, is recommended for individuals over a certain age to reduce the risk of shingles and its complications. There are also newer, more effective shingles vaccines available.
  3. Supportive Care:
    • Adequate rest and hydration are essential for both chickenpox and shingles patients.
    • Good hygiene practices, such as keeping fingernails short and clean, can help prevent secondary bacterial skin infections in cases of chickenpox.
  4. Complications Management:
    • If complications such as bacterial skin infections or pneumonia occur in chickenpox, appropriate treatments, including antibiotics, will be needed.


Prevention of Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV) infections, including chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (herpes zoster), primarily involves vaccination, infection control measures, and appropriate precautions. Here are key strategies for preventing VZV infections:

  1. Vaccination:
    • Varicella Vaccine: The varicella vaccine is a highly effective way to prevent chickenpox. It is recommended for all eligible children as part of the routine childhood immunization schedule. The vaccine can also be given to adults who have not had chickenpox or been vaccinated. Two doses of the vaccine are typically recommended.
    • Herpes Zoster (Shingles) Vaccine: Two vaccines are available to prevent shingles and its complications. The older vaccine, Zostavax, is recommended for adults aged 60 and older. A newer and more effective vaccine, Shingrix, is recommended for adults aged 50 and older and is the preferred choice. It requires two doses, given 2 to 6 months apart.
    • Combination Vaccine: Some countries offer a combination vaccine called MMRV, which includes vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella. It is administered to children according to the recommended immunization schedule.
  2. Infection Control Measures for Chickenpox:
    • Isolation: Individuals with chickenpox should be isolated from others, especially those who are at risk of severe complications (pregnant women, newborns, and immunocompromised individuals), until they are no longer contagious.
    • Respiratory Hygiene: Encourage good respiratory hygiene, such as covering the mouth and nose with a tissue or elbow when coughing or sneezing.
    • Hand Hygiene: Frequent handwashing with soap and water can help reduce the spread of the virus.
  3. Avoid Close Contact with Active Infections:
    • Avoid close contact with individuals who have active chickenpox or shingles, especially if you are at higher risk of complications.
  4. Post-Exposure Prophylaxis:
    • If you have been exposed to someone with chickenpox and are at high risk of severe disease (e.g., pregnant women, newborns, and individuals with weakened immune systems), consult a healthcare provider. They may recommend varicella-zoster immune globulin (VZIG) as post-exposure prophylaxis.
  5. Good Hygiene Practices:
    • Teach and practice good hygiene, including regular handwashing, to reduce the risk of infection transmission.
  6. Maintaining High Vaccine Coverage:
    • Ensure that vaccination coverage rates remain high in the community to achieve herd immunity, reducing the overall prevalence of the virus.
  7. Vaccination for Healthcare Workers and Travelers:
    • Healthcare workers should be immune to VZV, either through vaccination or a history of chickenpox, to reduce the risk of nosocomial (hospital-acquired) transmission.
    • Travelers to regions with a high incidence of varicella or shingles should consider vaccination if they are not already immune.

Keynotes on Varicella-Zoster Virus 

Here are keynotes on the Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV):

  1. Nature of the Virus:
    • VZV is a DNA virus belonging to the Herpesviridae family.
    • It causes two distinct diseases: chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (herpes zoster).
  2. Transmission:
    • Chickenpox is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets from infected individuals.
    • Shingles does not spread from person to person but occurs when the latent virus reactivates.
  3. Clinical Presentation:
    • Chickenpox: Characterized by an itchy skin rash, fever, fatigue, and general malaise.
    • Shingles: Presents as a painful, blistering skin rash along a single dermatome (nerve pathway).
  4. Latent Infection:
    • VZV becomes dormant in sensory nerve ganglia, reactivating later in life to cause shingles.
  5. Prevention:
    • Vaccination: Varicella vaccine for chickenpox prevention, and shingles vaccines (Zostavax and Shingrix) for shingles prevention.
    • High vaccination coverage contributes to herd immunity.
  6. Treatment:
    • Chickenpox: Focuses on symptom management with pain relievers and antiviral medications in severe cases.
    • Shingles: Antiviral medications can reduce symptom severity and duration if administered early.
  7. Complications:
    • Chickenpox complications include bacterial skin infections, pneumonia, and, rarely, encephalitis.
    • Shingles complications may include postherpetic neuralgia (persistent pain) and skin infections.
  8. Diagnosis:
    • PCR, virus culture, serological tests, Tzanck smear, and direct immunofluorescence can be used for diagnosis.
  9. Public Health:
    • Isolation of infected individuals is crucial to prevent VZV transmission.
    • Healthcare workers should be immune to VZV to avoid nosocomial transmission.
  10. Preventive Measures:
    • Respiratory and hand hygiene practices reduce transmission.
    • Post-exposure prophylaxis with VZIG may be recommended for high-risk individuals.
  11. VZV Reactivation:
    • Shingles risk increases with age, stress, and weakened immune function.
    • Vaccination can reduce the risk and severity of shingles.
  12. Research and Vaccines:
    • Ongoing research aims to improve VZV vaccines and antiviral treatments.
    • Newer shingles vaccines offer increased protection.

Further Readings

  1. Medical Journals and Articles:
    • Search for relevant articles in medical journals such as “Journal of Infectious Diseases,” “Journal of Virology,” “Vaccine,” and “Clinical Infectious Diseases.” Many articles are available online or through academic institutions.
  2. Books and Textbooks:
    • “Fields Virology” by Knipe and Howley: A comprehensive textbook covering virology topics, including herpesviruses like VZV.
    • “Vaccines” by Plotkin, Orenstein, and Offit: A reference book on vaccines, including chapters on varicella vaccines.
  3. CDC and WHO Resources:
    • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) provide extensive information on VZV, vaccination recommendations, and epidemiology. Their websites offer authoritative guidance.
  4. Clinical Guidelines:
    • Check for clinical guidelines and recommendations from professional medical organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).
  5. PubMed and Medical Databases:
    • Conduct searches on PubMed and other medical databases for recent research articles, clinical studies, and reviews related to VZV, chickenpox, and shingles.
  6. Vaccine Information Statements (VIS):
    • VIS documents provide information about vaccines, including varicella vaccines. They are available on the CDC website and can help you understand vaccine risks and benefits.
  7. Pharmaceutical and Vaccine Manufacturers:
    • Explore the websites of pharmaceutical companies that produce varicella and shingles vaccines for product information and research publications.
  8. Medical Libraries and Universities:
    • University libraries often provide access to a wide range of medical journals and resources. Visit your local university library or check if they offer online access to medical databases.
  9. Online Medical Forums and Communities:
    • Participate in online forums and communities for healthcare professionals and researchers to discuss recent developments and research findings related to VZV and its vaccines.
  10. Government Health Departments:
    • National health departments often publish reports, surveillance data, and guidelines related to VZV infections. Explore the websites of your country’s health department or similar agencies.
  11. Educational Institutions:
    • Check the websites of educational institutions, medical schools, and academic research centers for research papers and resources related to VZV.
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