Shingles is a painful viral infection. Although the condition is not contagious, the virus that causes it is contagious.
Shingles (herpes zoster) is an itchy skin rash caused by the same virus as chickenpox; the varicella zoster virus (VZV) is a member of the herpes virus family. One in three people in the North America will develop shingles in their lifetime. While shingles is not a life-threatening condition, it can cause intense pain.
Symptoms of shingles include a painful rash, tingling, sensitivity to touch, fluid-filled blisters, and itching. Shingles most frequently occur as blisters on one side of the body. In addition to the torso, a shingles rash can also be found near the eyes, which can result in permanent eye damage and vision loss if left untreated. In rare cases, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, inflammation of the brain, or death.
The risk of developing shingles is higher in individuals above 60, since age significantly increases the risk of severe complications. The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia, which is nerve pain that can last months or even years after the rash disappears. Other complications include secondary infection, scarring, and ocular side effects. The risk of shingles is also higher in those with weak immune systems, potentially due to cancer, medications, or chronic illness.
Is shingles contagious?
People can be unsure if shingles is contagious, and for how long shingles remains contagious. Shingles itself is not contagious and cannot be passed from person to person. However, the varicella zoster virus is contagious so the virus can be spread through contact with shingles blisters. It is not possible to develop shingles through contact with the saliva or nasal secretions of an individual with shingles.
People who are exposed to varicella zoster virus for the first time will develop chickenpox. Chickenpox is a contagious disease that is known to be a classic childhood infection. You can catch chickenpox from an individual with active shingles if you are not immune to chickenpox. This is because a person who has never had chickenpox does not have any antibodies against the varicella zoster virus in their body.
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles, since the virus can remain inactive in nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain for years. Reactivation of the virus can give rise to shingles. It is unclear why the virus reactivates but may occur due to a weakened immune system or prolonged stress.
How long is shingles contagious?
How long shingles is contagious depends on the time taken for the blistering skin rash to clear up. The rash normally scabs over in 7 to 10 days and heals within 2 to 4 weeks. The virus is not infectious before the blisters appear but becomes contagious once the rash is in the blister-phase. The virus can no longer be spread after the rash crusts over. The risk of spreading the virus to others is low if you completely cover the shingles rash.
How can you prevent the spread of the virus?
Shingles vaccines can help reduce the risk of developing shingles and can be taken by adults who have already had chickenpox. For individuals who have never experienced chickenpox, chickenpox vaccinations can be taken as a preventative measure to decrease the incidence of shingles.
A person with shingles must take precautions to reduce the risk of passing the varicella zoster virus to others by washing their hands often, properly covering the rash, and avoiding touching the blisters. Additionally, it is crucial to avoid contact with people who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, pregnant women, premature babies, and individuals with medical conditions.
Please consult a doctor promptly if you suspect shingles, particularly if you have a widespread and painful rash. Early treatment and antiviral medication can reduce the length of a shingles infection and minimize the chance of complications. The majority of people with shingles make a full recovery following a short period of painful symptoms.
Written by Albina Babu, MSc
Shingles (herpes zoster) (2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/shingles/index.html
Fact sheet – shingles (herpes zoster) (2013). Public Health Agency of Canada. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/infectious-diseases/fact-sheet-shingles-herpes-zoster.html
Shingles (2019). HealthLink BC. Retrieved from: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/hw75433
Shingles (2019). National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. Retrieved from: https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/shingles/