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Canadian Med Center

Is Shingles Contagious?

Monday 14 December 2020
4 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. Shingles & Chickenpox

II. Understanding Shingles

III. Symptoms of Shingles

IV. Complications of Shingles

V. Diagnosis & Treatment for Shingles

Shingles & Chickenpox

Shingles is a unique infection that affects people later in life. Shingles can only develop if a person had chickenpox when they were children. Once the varicella virus is in the body, it moves into the nerve tissues of the brain and spinal cord. The virus can lay dormant in this area for decades until it is awakened. Doctors and researchers are not sure why the virus comes back to life, but it can lead to shingles (herpes zoster). [1]

So, is shingles contagious? Because it is the same virus that causes chickenpox, it is contagious and can be spread from person to person. You cannot spread shingles to others but the virus can cause others to develop chickenpox. Shingles is an unpleasant condition, and treatment is necessary to treat symptoms and prevent spreading the virus to others. Your doctor may recommend medications like Famvir (famciclovir),  Zovirax (acyclovir), or Valtrex (valacyclovir). Read on to learn more about the symptoms and risk factors for shingles. [2]


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Understanding Shingles

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), around one in three people in the United States will develop shingles. Typically, people will only get shingles once, but some may develop it more than one time. Older adults are more likely to get shingles. Children can get shingles, but that is a rare occurrence.

an older woman wearing black

In 1995, the chickenpox vaccine was licensed for use in the United States. [3] Since the vaccine, the rate of chickenpox infections has gone down dramatically. Older adults did not have a vaccine when they were children, so shingles is prevalent in people in their 60s or 70s. The rate of shingles will likely go down over time as vaccinated people age and are unlikely to be infected with the varicella-zoster virus. [4] 

As mentioned earlier, there is no exact reason why the virus may awaken in adulthood. Because it occurs to those in their 60s or 70s, many doctors believe that an older person’s immune system can no longer suppress the virus. A weakened or suppressed immune system may release the virus, causing shingles. [2]

Symptoms of Shingles

Like chickenpox, shingles infections involve several stages. The first symptoms of shingles often involve headache, fever, or chills. These symptoms indicate many health disorders, so people may not know that they are experiencing shingles. The more noticeable signs of shingles include:

Blisters: Shingles blisters look very similar to chickenpox. Raised blisters will occur on the skin and will open, ooze fluid, and crust over. Shingles differ from chickenpox in that the shingles rash occurs in one area and one side of the body, typically the waist.

Pain: This virus also comes with unpleasant nerve pain. It can cause strange pains and sensations in the body and a burning feeling on the skin before the blisters appear. This pain can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers. [2]

a woman holding her face in pain

Complications of Shingles

In most cases, shingles symptoms will go away after a short period. Most people make a full recovery once the virus has run its course. The rash and blisters will clear up within a month, but this is not the case for everyone. For others, that unpleasant nerve pain may linger and have lasting health effects. These complications can include:

Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN): This is the most common long-term complication of shingles. Once the rash disappears, people with PHN will still experience pain, itching, and tingling for months. This side effect may last a few months but could become permanent.

Eye issues: The shingles rash usually occurs on the torso, but some people can develop a rash on the eyes, forehead, or nose. Blisters near the eyes can lead to permanent complications. If you have shingles in your eyes, you may experience:

  • Swelling and redness
  • Glaucoma (increased pressure in the eye)
  • Sores and scarring on the eye’s surface
  • Damage to the nerves [1]

a close up of an older person’s eye

Diagnosis & Treatment for Shingles

Receiving a shingles diagnosis is fairly simple. Your doctor will ask about your medical history and if you had chickenpox as a child. They will do a physical examination to determine the pattern of your rash and blisters. Your doctor may take a tissue sample of your blisters to examine in a lab.

Viral infections have no cure, and treatment involves letting the virus run its course. Various medications and creams can assist with this process and speed up the healing time. The most commonly prescribed drugs for shingles include Famvir (famciclovir),  Zovirax (acyclovir), or Valtrex (valacyclovir).

Antiviral medications are used to treat herpes viruses, including genital herpes, cold sores, shingles, and chickenpox. Antiviral drugs prevent herpes viruses from reproducing and infecting more cells in the body. This can speed up the recovery process and prevent any possible complications. [5]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.