Is Shingles Contagious?

Shingles (Disease), Herpes zoster, varicella-zoster virus, skin rash and blisters

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Shingles is a painful condition that often produces a rash. The virus that causes chickenpox, varicella-zoster virus (VZV), also causes shingles. People who get chickenpox contract VZV, which then lays dormant in the body.

About a third of people who have had chickenpox will experience a recurrence of the virus as an adult. The second time around, though, it does not cause chickenpox, it causes shingles.

When you have shingles, you can pass on the virus and give chickenpox to someone who has never had it before. You won’t directly give them shingles, but if they get chickenpox they will be at risk of getting shingles later in life.

How You Catch the Varicella-Zoster Virus

Shingles is not contagious. You can’t catch shingles from someone. However, a person with shingles can pass along VZV to people who have never contracted chickenpox. 

VZV can be transmitted from a person with shingles to someone who has never had chickenpox via direct contact with fluid from shingles rash or blisters. It’s not possible to pass along VZV before shingles blisters appear or after lesions crust over.

However, shingles is a lot less contagious than chickenpox. By covering up your rash, you can prevent the spread of the virus.

Shingles usually happens many years after an initial chickenpox infection. The first sign of an infection is a one-sided rash on the face or body. It takes up to 10 days for the rash and blisters to crust over. It will clear up entirely several weeks later.

Is Shingles Airborne?

While chickenpox is an airborne disease, with shingles the virus can only be transmitted by contact with fluid from the rash or blisters if the person with shingles has a localized rash and has a competent immune system. In such people, airborne transmission is not a concern.

However, for people who are immunocompromised or have disseminated zoster with lesions outside of the primary area, airborne transmission is possible.

How Shingles Is Spread

People who get infected with VZV develop chickenpox. The virus then lays dormant. In some people, it becomes active again in adulthood, causing the painful condition called shingles.

Not everyone who contracts chickenpox will develop shingles later in life. In rare cases, shingles may occur multiple times in a person’s life.

Groups at Risk

Some people are more likely to experience shingles after having had chickenpox, including:

  • People who have compromised immune systems because of a health condition
  • People who are taking immunosuppressing drugs 

Women are more likely to develop shingles than men. Additionally, Black people are less likely to have shingles than White people. Older adults are more likely to have complications as a result of shingles than other age groups.

If you have not had chickenpox or never received the chickenpox vaccine, you are at risk of contracting VZV.

How Caregivers Can Protect Themselves

Caregivers providing support to someone with shingles can take the following actions to protect themselves from the virus:

  • Covering the rash and blisters to prevent the spread of the virus
  • Frequent handwashing
  • Frequent clothes washing
  • Promptly throwing away used bandages 

How to Avoid Spreading Shingles

The most effective way for people with shingles to prevent the spread of VZV is to:

  • Cover the rash
  • Frequently wash hands
  • Avoid scratching 

Additionally, you should avoid contact with vulnerable people if you develop shingles. Until the rash begins to heal and crust over, you should avoid people at higher risk for VZV complications, including people with compromised immune systems and pregnant people.

A person with shingles is contagious until their rash crusts over.

Can I Go to Work With Shingles?

You can go to work if you have shingles and are no longer contagious. However, you may need to wait until you’re feeling better. Shingles can be excruciating and debilitating. 

You’re no longer contagious when the rash and blisters begin to scab over. This is typically 10 days after the rash first crops up.

Vaccines

Two vaccines may help prevent shingles.

The chickenpox vaccine lowers a person’s chances of developing shingles. But you can still get chickenpox despite being vaccinated, which means you can also potentially get shingles later in life.

The current shingles vaccine, Shingrix, is recommended for adults 50 years of age and older. A person can get the shingles vaccine even if they’ve already experienced a shingles episode.

People can also get a Shingrix vaccine if they’re unsure whether they had chickenpox as a child. Shingrix is a two-dose vaccine. For maximum effect, a person needs to get the second dose within at least six months of the first. 

Don’t get the Shingrix vaccine if you are:

  • Allergic to any of the vaccine ingredients
  • Sick with shingles or have a fever
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding

Also, avoid the vaccine if you have a weakened immune system. If in doubt, talk to your healthcare professional to determine whether it makes sense for you to get the shingles vaccine.

A Word From Verywell

Shingles is a painful condition that can be prevented. If you’ve never had chickenpox, you don’t need to worry about developing singles, but you can contract chickenpox from someone who has shingles. Getting vaccinated for chickenpox or shingles can help you avoid infection and potential complications.

Why bother protecting yourself? Shingles often crops up later in life. While you might feel in tip-top shape now, years down the road, you might have to deal with a health condition that increases your risk of complications with shingles. 

In some people, shingles can cause lasting effects such as nerve damage. Thankfully, there are effective vaccines that can help prevent instances of both chickenpox and shingles. Want to know more about getting the vaccine? Talk to your healthcare provider to find out if it’s right for you. 

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute on Aging. Shingles. Updated February 1, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmission. Reviewed July 1, 2019.

  3. New York State Department of Health. Shingles (herpes zoster). Reviewed May 2016.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing varicella-zoster virus (VZV) transmission from herpes zoster in healthcare settings. Updated August 14, 2019.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Clinical overview. Reviewed October 25, 2020.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Shingles. Reviewed February 17, 2020.

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