Is Shingles Contagious?

Often associated with a painful rash, shingles is a viral infection that tends to affect adults 50 and over more than other age groups. Any part of the body can be affected by an outbreak, but the virus usually becomes most visible and active around the torso area. A common question patients often have about this condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus is whether or not it’s contagious. This is the question we answer below.

It Depends on Immunity to Chickenpox

This viral infection is, as mentioned above, caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is also a cause of chickenpox. It’s a reactivation of the virus that initially caused chickenpox that occurs many years after chickenpox has come and gone. Therefore, it is possible – under certain circumstances – to pass the virus along to someone who has not had chickenpox or someone who is not immune to the varicella-zoster virus. An infected person will develop chickenpox.

The ‘Contagious Phase’

There is what’s sometimes referred to as a contagious phase associated with this viral infection. Transfer of the virus usually occurs through direct contact. This means that there typically needs to be an open sore or blister for someone to catch it. Once blisters have scabbed over, however, an individual is no longer considered contagious.

Symptoms suggesting someone may have “caught” the varicella-zoster virus through direct contact include:

  • Fever and/or fatigue
  • Reduced appetite
  • Headaches

Reducing the Risk of Spreading the Virus

To reduce the possibility of spreading the virus, individuals with this condition are advised to take steps to reduce the risk of passing it along. These steps include avoiding physical contact with family members or other individuals who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine.

It’s also best for infected individuals to avoid direct contact with anyone who may have a compromised immune system. Other people considered to be “susceptible” to having potentially severe reactions to the varicella-zoster virus include:

  • Women who are pregnant
  • Newborns
  • Older adults with underlying health issues

Susceptible individuals could also include older people or those who have certain diseases or conditions, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer. Individuals currently undergoing cancer-related treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy may also be more susceptible to developing the varicella-zoster virus when someone else with this virus is in close proximity – especially during the contagious phase when sores are still open.

Vaccinations Could Help Susceptible Individuals

If you live with someone or come into regular contact with someone who is more likely to become infected, vaccinations may provide some added protection for those individuals. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved two vaccines for this purpose: Shingrix and Zostavax. Zostavax, in particular, may protect against the virus that causes chickenpox for around five years or so.

Note: Vaccination is meant for people who do not currently have an outbreak or infection. It is not a treatment for individuals with this disease.

Shingles Cream May Help

This sometimes painful infection isn’t curable. However, it may be possible to manage symptoms effectively to, in turn, minimize the risk of unintentionally spreading the virus to others. An effective shingles cream may help achieve this goal, especially if your primary symptom is a skin rash or skin irritation. Topical creams of this nature may also minimize itchiness – which is important to do since scratching or itching could re-open sores and create conditions perfect for passing the disease through direct contact. Your doctor can give you a better idea of if a shingles cream is appropriate for your situation.

There are also prescription antiviral drugs that may facilitate the healing process. Additionally, injections of corticosteroids and local anesthetics could be helpful. Some of these medications may also play a role in preventing complications that could worsen outbreaks. On a positive note, this virus usually lasts for 2-6 weeks, which is why an effective shingles cream or other topical treatment may be beneficial if you only have mild or moderate symptoms.

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