Shingles — also known as herpes zoster — is a condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Shingles itself is not contagious. It can’t spread from one person to another. However, the varicella-zoster virus is contagious. If you have shingles, you can pass the virus to another person, which could then cause them to develop chickenpox.

However, the virus can only be transmitted from the time blisters appear to when they form a crust, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Keeping the rash covered will reduce the risk of transmission.

The varicella-zoster virus will stay in that person’s nerve tissue for the rest of their life. For most of that time, the virus stays in an inactive state. But it can reactivate again years later. This could cause the person to develop shingles.

Read on to learn more about shingles and how to prevent the spread of the varicella-zoster virus.

The varicella-zoster virus can typically spread from a person with shingles to someone who has never had chickenpox. If a person has had chickenpox, they usually have antibodies against the virus in their body.

Shingles causes open, oozing blisters. The varicella-zoster virus can spread through contact with shingles blisters that haven’t scabbed over yet. If you haven’t had chickenpox, you can acquire the varicella-zoster virus from exposure to the virus through someone else’s open shingles blisters. This could lead to chickenpox.

The virus doesn’t spread after the blisters have formed crusty scabs. Once the blisters scab, they can no longer pass on the virus. The virus also doesn’t spread when the blisters are well covered.

You can’t get shingles through contact with the saliva or nasal secretions of someone who has shingles, except in rare cases. That means you usually can’t get shingles if someone who has it coughs or sneezes on you.

Most people have the varicella-zoster virus in their bodies. But the National Institute on Aging says that it only reactivates in around one-third of them, so only one in three people with the virus will have shingles. Experts do not know why some people develop it, and others don’t.

However, the chance of this happening increases as a person gets older. Around half of all cases occur after the age of 60 years, and the risk increases significantly from 70 onward.

You might also have a higher risk if you:

  • have a health condition that affects the immune system, such as HIV and some cancers
  • are taking medications that affect the immune system, such as those given after an organ transplant and some cancer treatments
  • have stress
  • have too much sun exposure

Even a common cold can affect the immune system and trigger shingles in some people.

Shingles is also known as postherpetic neuralgia because it causes nerve pain.

Early shingles symptoms can include:

  • headache
  • fever and chills
  • feeling generally unwell
  • upset stomach
  • tingling, burning, numbness, and pain in the skin

The most noticeable symptoms are blisters and pain.

Blisters

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

But unlike the chickenpox rash, which can occur on different parts of your body, shingles usually affects one area of your body. Shingles blisters are most prevalent on your torso, where they wrap around your waist on one side of your body. In fact, the word “shingles” comes from the Latin word for “belt.”

The shingles rash may also appear on one side of your face. If this happens, contact a doctor immediately.

Pain

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

Shingles pain varies in severity. It can be 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.

A shingles outbreak usually lasts 3 to 5 weeks. Most people experience pain and discomfort for a short period and then make a full recovery. People usually only have one episode of shingles in their lifetime.

Shingles outbreaks are temporary, but they can have some lasting effects on your health and well-being.

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. Around 1 in 10 people develop post-herpetic neuralgia, nerve pain that can continue for months or years after the shingles rash has gone.

Medical advances, including the chickenpox and shingles vaccines, mean that fewer people will get chickenpox and shingles in the future.

Shingles is not contagious. But if someone comes into contact with the rash at a certain stage, they may contract the varicella-zoster virus and develop chickenpox. If they have chickenpox, shingles can develop later in life.

To prevent the virus from being transmitted, keep shingles rashes covered. Cover the rash from when the blisters appear to when they crust and scab over. According to the CDC, this usually takes 7 to 10 days.

The rash will usually clear after 2 to 4 weeks.

The varicella-zoster virus is typically less likely to be transmitted with shingles than with chickenpox. However, the varicella-zoster virus can be passed on from the time that your symptoms start until your rash and blisters have crusted dry.

If you have shingles and are otherwise healthy, you can still go out in public or to work. But be sure to follow these tips:

  • Keep the shingles rash clean and covered. This can help prevent other people from coming into contact with your blisters.
  • Wash your hands often. Also, try not to touch the blisters.
  • Avoid being around pregnant people. The varicella-zoster virus can cause serious health risks for both pregnant people and their babies. Risks include pneumonia and permanent damage to the unborn child. If you find you have shingles after spending time with someone who’s pregnant, let them know at once so they can ask their OB-GYN for advice. Be especially careful to avoid pregnant people who haven’t had chickenpox or the vaccine for it.
  • Avoid other at-risk people. Stay away from premature babies, infants with low birth weights, and children who haven’t yet had chickenpox or its vaccine. Also, avoid people with weakened immune systems. These include people living with HIV, organ transplant recipients, and people taking immunosuppressant medications or having chemotherapy.

Doctors recommend the chickenpox vaccine for children. Preventing chickenpox will also prevent shingles.

For adults, a different vaccine is available to prevent shingles called Shingrix. The CDC recommends it for healthy adults who are 50 years and older. A doctor will give two doses, 2 to 6 months apart, as an injection in your arm.

A double dose offers over 90 percent protection. The protection level stays above 85 percent for at least 4 years.

You can get the vaccine even if you:

  • have previously had shingles
  • do not know if you have had chickenpox
  • have already had the Zostavax vaccine, an older shingles vaccine in use before 2020

It is not suitable if you are currently experiencing shingles.

A doctor can advise on this and other vaccines.

Shingles is a rash that can affect people who have had chickenpox, even if they had it years ago. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The virus remains dormant in the body, but, in some cases, it can reactivate and cause shingles.

The shingles rash is not contagious. But the virus can be passed on to another person through contact with the rash when blisters are present. Then, that person may get chickenpox.

There is less chance of passing on the virus if the rash is covered, and transmission can only happen from the time blisters form to when they scab over.

Having the shingles vaccine can help protect you from shingles.