Is shingles contagious? What is it, and what exactly causes it?
By Dhanesh Misir
Posted in: Health
What is shingles? Contagious or not, no one wants to end up on the receiving end of this virus.
If you’ve ever found yourself in proximity with a person afflicted with shingles virus, there was one question in particular that very likely crossed your mind. “Is shingles contagious?” If this thought did indeed occur to you, you shouldn’t feel like you were being selfish – it’s perfectly natural to see another person’s misfortune and wonder if you’re in danger of falling victim to the same.
Our tendency towards self-preservation is part of what makes us such an adaptable species, after all. And shingles, given its reputation for being a painful and frustrating affliction, isn’t something anyone looks forward to receiving. This makes the commonplace nature of the virus all the more troubling, as nearly one out of every three adults will develop shingles at some point in their lives.
Although most patients with shingles will only experience one episode, it is possible for someone to fall victim to it a second time. Third cases for the same person are rare, but also possible. However, by understanding the risks of shingles, the causes, and the various ways it can be spread, you’ll be better equipped to avoid running into this virus.
So what is shingles, anyway?
Also known as herpes zoster, the shingles virus is something that many people carry without ever realizing it. It is also connected to chicken pox, as the two afflictions stem from the same virus, called varicella zoster.
Dr. Pravin, a dermatology Expert on JustAnswer, offers the following insights when asked to provide a general definition of shingles: “Shingles (herpes zoster) is a painful, blistering skin rash due to the varicella-zoster virus, the virus that causes chicken pox,” he explains. “After you get chicken pox, the virus remains inactive (becomes dormant) in certain nerves in the body. Shingles occurs after the virus becomes active again in these nerves.”
While chicken pox is characterized by a series of itchy blisters that gradually spread throughout your body, shingles is a rash that usually comes accompanied with shooting pain. This pain can be a nuisance at its best, and a debilitating problem at its worst, though rashes from shingles are usually be limited to one side of the body.
The pain and discomfort of shingles can make it difficult to live with this infection.
As explained by Dr. Pravin, the pain and burning associated with shingles is usually present before the rash appears. Red patches and blisters will later form in most people, and then the blisters will break, taking the form of small ulcers that dry out and form crusts. The timeline for shingles symptoms may vary, but these will usually fall off within two to three weeks. A person’s face, ears, mouth, and even eyes can be affected by shingles.
Is shingles contagious?
Although shingles can’t be transferred directly from one person to another, the virus that causes it is contagious. Varicella zoster can be passed along to any person who isn’t immune to chicken pox – however, newly infected individuals will develop chicken pox, since the virus initially causes this infection.
That being said, chicken pox can be a dangerous affliction for certain people. It is much more serious in adults, and can be particularly harmful for newborns, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women. Anyone who has never had chicken pox is at risk, however, this only applies to the contagious phase of a shingles episode.
The varicella zoster virus is spread between people through direct contact with the fluid that comes from the shingles’ rash blisters. A person with shingles isn’t infectious to others before these blisters appear, and once they do, care should be taken to avoid exposing others to them. When asked “Is shingles contagious?”, Dr. Chip, a medical Expert on JustAnswer, describes how covering up these blisters can prevent spreading the virus.
“Shingles is contagious until the blisters have crusted over, but it's transmitted by skin to skin contact with the rash itself,” he states. “So long as no (one) actually touches your rash, they can't be infected by you.”
If you have shingles and the rash is in the contagious phase, be sure to:
- Cover it whenever possible
- Wash your hands frequently
- Avoid contact with newborns and people with lowered immune system function, like patients undergoing chemotherapy.
- Avoid contact with pregnant women who haven’t had chicken pox
What causes shingles? Are there any risk factors?
Any person who has had chicken pox at any point in their lifetime can develop shingles. Although it is established that shingles, like chicken pox, is caused by the varicella zoster virus, what isn’t understood is why the virus acts up again after years of remaining dormant.
Taking the right steps early on can potentially reduce the amount of time it takes to get through the infection.
Even though it isn’t clear what causes shingles to later surface in people carrying the virus, what is known is that the infection can be extremely painful. Luckily, by seeking out medical advice at the first sign of an outbreak, patients can receive treatment options that could actually reduce the severity and duration of the symptoms.
Although the reason for shingles virus reactivation hasn’t yet been confirmed, it is believed that it could be the result of lowering immunities as we age. This theory is supported by the fact that shingles breakouts are much more commonplace in older adults. Aside from getting older, other factors that heighten the risk of shingles include:
- Medical conditions that weaken the immune system, like HIV and leukemia
- Immunosuppressive medications, like drugs administered after an organ transplant
- Prolonged use of steroids like prednisone
Understanding the risks and symptoms can make it easier to cope with an outbreak, but most importantly, you’ll be able to contain it to yourself. The question “Is shingles contagious?” will ultimately depend on the steps taken by patients to protect others from catching the virus.
For more information about shingles and how you can steer clear of it, or to learn methods for coping with the painful symptoms involved, reach out to the Experts on JustAnswer today.
Have you had shingles? What about chicken pox? Share your ailments in the comments below! Not literally, though.