Shingles or herpes zoster is a disease affecting the nervous system. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles later in life, as shingles is a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. Shingles is somewhat contagious and individuals with an active infection should take care to minimize the spread of the virus.
A person who has never had chickenpox can contract the virus from someone with shingles. When the shingles virus is active, it causes painful blisters on the skin that contain the live virus. If an uninfected person comes into contact with the fluid in these blisters, they could catch the virus and develop chickenpox.
Shingles-to shingles transmission—one person with shingles infecting someone who has had chickenpox—is not possible, but the person with active shingles can spread the virus to someone who never had chickenpox; as a result, the person who never had the virus before will develop chickenpox, not shingles.
If a person has shingles, the active infection can last a long time, but they won't be contagious for that entire period. They can only infect a person who has never had the virus when there are blisters on their skin.
In the early stages of shingles, an infected person will begin to feel pain, but will not yet have blisters and is therefore not contagious. Likewise, when the disease is nearly gone, the blisters will have scabbed over completely and are not contagious.
During the blistering phase, people with a shingles infection should take steps to prevent transmitting shingles to others. Avoid sharing towels, cover the blisters, and avoid contact sports and swimming. You may also need to take some time off of work or work from home while the blisters are seeping.
Vaccines can help prevent a shingles outbreak in the first place. The shingles vaccine is recommended in healthy adults 60 years and older. Some research shows it is best to contract chickenpox when young, so as to have immunity when older.
The shingles vaccine does not guarantee prevention, but it will reduce the chances of infection. A person can receive the shingles vaccine regardless of whether they have had chickenpox.
Shingles does not only develop on the skin. Ophthalmic shingles occurs when the virus affects the trigeminal nerve that controls the muscles, sensation, and movement of the face. This form of the infection requires immediate treatment. It can present as conjunctivitis or pink eye, which is highly contagious.
Other symptoms of this shingles-related eye infection include throbbing pain in the eye, blurry vision, and redness around and in the eye.
The shingles virus can spread to anyone and is relatively common. However, some people are more susceptible than others. In particular, older people have a greater risk of contracting chickenpox or shingles. Once a person has had shingles, his or her body retains the virus permanently.
People with weakened immune systems are most at risk. In adidtion to older adults, this includes pregnant women, and babies, whose immune systems are not fully developed.
Good hygiene, such as hand washing and thorough home and bathroom cleaning, can help keep shingles from spreading. It is also important to cover the rash and avoid touching or scratching it.
Although shingles is less contagious than chickenpox, anyone who begins exhibiting symptoms should stay away from pregnant women, those who are HIV-positive, anyone with a recent organ transplant or taking immunosuppressant drugs, young children, and elderly individuals.
Generally, shingles develop because of a weakened immune system due to illness, but other factors can also prompt the reactivation of the virus, including stress and emotional turmoil.
Pursuing a healthy lifestyle including proper diet and exercise can help prevent shingles, as these actions also help reduce stress. Taking steps to maintain good mental health and balance is also important.
Shingles begins with pain in the area that will ultimately develop a rash. The affected person may experience burning, itching, or stinging pain, as well as flu-like symptoms such as headaches, low-grade fever, and fatigue.
A physician can investigate further to determine whether shingles is the cause. The incubation period of shingles—the time it takes from transmission to the first symptoms—is usually about two weeks, so it can be difficult to trace it back to the source.
Hot spots on the skin, rashes, and weeping blisters can cause significant pain for a person with shingles. Painkillers and antiviral medication can help ease the pain and severity of the virus. Pain can persist long after the rash and blisters disappear.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.