Shingles is a painful infection of the nerve fibers near your spine. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. This means you can get shingles if you have had chickenpox in the past. This is typically caused by the reactivation of the virus that has laid dormant in the nerves even after a person has healed from chickenpox. When is shingles contagious? We will explore this question as well other questions related to this topic in this article.
Shingles can be very debilitating, and it is surprisingly more common than we think. Approximately 1 in 3 people who have not been immunized against chickenpox or shingles can develop shingles later in life. It usually occurs among older people above the age of 60 years old. The virus can be transmitted to other people if you have shingles, even when your rash is not visible. However, it happens more often in the blister phase of the illness.
Before we get into whether or not shingles are contagious, let’s learn a bit about what causes them first, shall we?
While we cannot say for certain what causes the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, risk factors for shingles include :
- Age. Being over the age of 60 years old is a risk factor for shingles, as this increases your likelihood of developing it later in life.
- Having had chickenpox before. If you have had chickenpox before and recovered from it at some point, there is a chance that the virus will come back to cause shingles.
- Being immunocompromised. One of the primary reasons we protect people from chickenpox is that if you get it, your risk of getting shingles goes up. If you have a compromised immune system due to diseases like HIV or cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, your chances of having an outbreak are also increased.
It is possible for a person to have shingles even if they do not fall into any of the categories mentioned above. However, having these risk factors can definitely increase your chances of developing it later in life.
Do you want to know whether or not shingles are contagious? If yes, then continue reading!
First of all, we should clear up the misunderstanding that we can catch shingles from coming into contact with an infected person. We have learned that shingles is caused by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus in the body. Therefore, that would mean that one has to first suffer from chickenpox before experiencing shingles later in life. As such, someone who has never had chickenpox or taken the shingles vaccine before can be infected with the virus when coming into contact with a sick person afflicted with shingles, and the disease that results is chickenpox and not shingles.
In other words, shingles is not contagious, but the virus that causes shingles is. How then should we avoid getting infected with the virus?
The virus is transmitted to others only when there are symptoms of shingles. This happens more often during the blister phase; however, it can also occur before and after this stage too. There are several ways in which the virus spreads, but the primary mechanism in which shingles is transmitted is often through the fluid oozing out of the open blisters. For example, touching the blister fluid with your hands and transferring it to another person or touching clothes that have come into contact with the open blister wound can lead to infection. Other than this, it is also possible for the virus to spread through contact with respiratory secretions such as saliva and mucus from coughing or sneezing. However, this only occurs if the shingles patient has open blisters in his mouth or respiratory tract. When the rashes start to dry up and crust over, they will form scabs and no longer ooze fluid. This is when the infectious phase has passed.
There are a few things that you should do if someone in your household has shingles:
- Keep children away – Make sure that they do not come into contact with the fluids oozing out of the open blisters.
- Make sure that your children and other family members get vaccinated against the virus.
- Make sure that your family members wash their hands thoroughly before coming into contact with an affected person.
- Do not touch your face – Touching the eyes, nose, or mouth can lead to infection of the virus through mucous membranes in these areas.
- Wash clothes soiled by shingles rashes carefully and disinfect them using bleach.
- Avoid sharing towels and other items that could come into contact with the blisters.
- The affected person should avoid swimming and contact sports as these could result in other people coming into contact with the oozing blisters.
In conclusion, the virus that causes shingles is contagious. The primary way people can get infected with the virus is when they contact fluid oozing out of open blisters on a person who has shingles. Practicing good hygiene such as washing hands and not sharing items such as clothes and towels are vital in preventing the spread of this virus. Once the blisters start to form scabs, they dry up and no longer produce fluids. This would indicate that the infectious period is over. One should also consider getting vaccinated as it provides ample protection against the virus.