How Contagious Is Shingles?

Written by Erica Roth | Published on August 22, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on August 22, 2013

What Is Shingles?

Shingles is a disease that’s closely related to chickenpox. The herpes zoster virus, also called varicella-zoster (VZ), causes both chickenpox and shingles.

Once you’ve had chickenpox, you’re infected with the herpes zoster virus. The virus stays in your body in an inactive state for the rest of your life.

If the virus activates again, you get shingles. You can only get shingles if you’ve had chickenpox.

Who Gets Shingles?

Anyone who has had chickenpox can have shingles, no matter how old they are. However, it’s most common in senior citizens in their 60s and 70s.

Shingles are very common. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that half of the American population will show signs of the disease by the time they’re 80 years old.

The virus tends to reactivate when your immune system is weaker than normal. It’s not unusual to get shingles when you’re already sick or very stressed out.

Blistering Symptoms

The outward symptoms of shingles look a lot like a case of chickenpox. Both diseases feature raised blisters that open, ooze fluid, and crust over.

The main difference with this symptom is that shingles usually affects one area of your body. The chickenpox rash can appear anywhere. Shingles blisters are most prevalent on your torso, wrapping around your waist like a belt. The term “shingles” comes from cingulum, the Latin word for belt.

Shingles Pain

Shingles travels along a nerve path, causing pain and strange sensations. Your skin might tingle or feel like it’s burning before the telltale blisters appear. Itching and sensitivity to touch are also symptoms of shingles.

Shingles pain varies in severity and can be very difficult to treat with over-the-counter pain medications. Your doctor might prescribe antidepressants or steroids. These two types of drugs can successfully relieve nerve pain in some people.

Lasting Effects

Shingles outbreaks are temporary, but they can have some lasting effects on your health and wellbeing. The blisters may feel like they’ll stick around forever, but they should clear up within a month.

However, the nerve pain of shingles can linger, lasting for weeks or even months in some cases. Generally, shingles pain is more persistent and longer lasting in older adults. Younger people usually show no signs of the disease once the blisters have cleared up.

When Are You Contagious?

Shingles is not contagious in the traditional sense. For example, you can’t get shingles from someone with shingles coughing or sneezing on you. If you’ve had chickenpox, you already have the shingles virus. So even if a close family member has active shingles, the virus in your body won’t necessarily reactivate.

Shingles is only contagious is if you’ve never had chickenpox. In this case, someone with shingles can pass the varicella-zoster virus to you, because you don’t already have it in your body.

Transmission Methods

Close, personal contact with open blisters passes the shingles virus from one person to another. While blisters are fresh or oozing, you’re considered contagious to people who haven’t had chickenpox or who have a compromised immune system.

However, you can’t spread the virus after the blisters have broken open and formed crusty scabs. If someone who hasn’t had chickenpox touches the blister fluids, they could get chickenpox, but not shingles.

Prevention

Keeping the shingles rash clean and covered can help prevent spreading the virus to others who are at risk. Wash your hands frequently, and try not to touch the blisters. 

Senior citizens may choose to get vaccinated against shingles. The vaccine reduces the risk of getting shingles and having the widespread nerve pain associated with it.

Talk to your doctor to find out if you’re a candidate for the shingles vaccine.

Memories of Shingles Past

Luckily, most people who have shingles experience pain and discomfort for a short period of time and make a full recovery.

The technological advances of modern medicine, including the chickenpox and shingles vaccines mean that fewer people in the future will get chickenpox and shingles. In fact, it may not be too far in the future that this painful disease is just a memory.

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