I recently received word that a relative of mine has shingles. But the reason people were calling to tell me this was not to share family news. My relatives wanted to know one thing from Nurse Jen: how contagious is shingles? So I dug into my nursing textbooks and online medical resources to answer this question.
What is shingles?
Shingles is a skin infection caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. Shingles is occurs when the varicella zoster virus that lay dormant in your nerves from an earlier chicken pox infection is reactivated. A person infected with shingles will begin to see reddened areas on the skin that eventually form fluid filled vesicles. The fluid in these vesicles is highly contagious. The redness and vesicles tend to form unilaterally, that is on one side of the body only.
Who gets shingles?
People over the age of 60 are more likely to develop shingles. However, people who have a compromised immune system regardless of age are also very susceptible to developing shingles. My relative is 51, recovering from a bout of skin cancer, and she did have contact with someone who had shingles. Is this how she got shingles? Maybe.
How contagious is shingles?
For my family and everyone else reading this article, pay attention. If you come into contact with an open oozing vesicle on someone diagnosed with shingles, you may develop shingles. This is heavily dependent on two conditions:
-Did you ever have the chicken pox or chicken pox vaccine?
-Are you very ill right now?
If you never had chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine, you will develop chicken pox rather than shingles. If you are very sick and your immune system is compromised, you have a greater chance of contracting shingles. Women who are pregnant should avoid people with active cases of shingles since this virus can cross the placenta and infect the fetus. Otherwise, shingles is much less contagious than chicken pox.
So should I avoid people with shingles?
If you’re pregnant or never had chicken pox, absolutely. If your immune system is run down due to illness or certain cancers like lymphomas or leukemia, keep your distance from people with shingles. Shingles is not an airborne disease. So being in the same room with someone infected with shingles is not dangerous. But avoid contact with personal items the infected person may have touched: utensils, towels, clothing, linens. If you have shingles, wash these personal items in hot water. If you are over age 60, the shingles vaccine is highly recommended.
PubMed Health (US National Library of Medicine-National Institutes of Health), Shingles, updated May 2010
LeMone, Priscilla & Burke, Karen (2008). Medical-Surgical Nursing-Critical Thinking In Client Care (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall pp 452-455.