Exactly how you get shingles can be confusing: it’s technically the reactivation of chickenpox and is caused by the same pesky virus (the varicella-zoster virus).
But is shingles contagious? What are the riskiest transmission methods? How long is it contagious? What can you do to avoid getting shingles transmitted to you? What even causes shingles?
We’ll be covering everything below, but let’s start with a basic question.
Feature image: Wikimedia/Fisle
How Do You Get Shingles?
You don’t catch shingles from other people — instead it’s caused by the reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox. You can only develop shingles if you had chickenpox when you were younger. You can’t get shingles if you’ve never had chickenpox.
After you recover from chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus can enter your nervous system and lie dormant there for years. Someday, it might reactivate and cause shingles to appear. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why this happens, but it tends to happen to older people (over 50 years old) and/or those with weakened immune systems (for example, those with HIV or leukemia).
You can’t catch shingles from someone else, but if you have it, you can transmit the virus to others, giving them chickenpox.
Is Shingles Contagious?
Technically, you cannot catch “shingles,” like I explained above – it’s just a reactivation of the virus.
However, you CAN pass the virus around! According to Mayo Clinic, if you have shingles, you can pass the varicella-zoster virus (in the form of chickenpox) to anyone who isn’t immune to chickenpox.
This means that shingles can only be spread to someone who has never had chickenpox before or has never gotten the chickenpox vaccine. If they’re infected, they’ll develop chickenpox (not shingles).
So is shingles contagious? Absolutely yes – someone with shingles can pass the chickenpox virus to other people.
How Is Shingles Transmitted?
The virus can only be transmitted in two ways. The first method is through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash (such as the sores in the image above).
The second method is through contact with the fluid from the shingles sores. Avoid contact with anything that might have touched the fluid from the shingles sores. For example, make sure you don’t share any towels or clothes with someone who has shingles.
All that being said, according to the CDC, shingles is less contagious than the chickenpox, meaning it’s more difficult to spread.
When the virus that causes chickenpox reactivates, it causes shingles. Early symptoms of shingles include headache, sensitivity to light, and flu-like symptoms without a fever. You may then feel itching, tingling, or pain where a band, strip, or small area of rash may appear several days or weeks later.
How Long Is Shingles Contagious?
According to the CDC, someone with shingles can spread the virus when the rash is in the blister period. This shingles contagious period is when the blisters start appearing and filling with fluid; it can last anywhere from 1-4 weeks.
Shingles is NOT infectious before the blisters appear.
Shingles is NOT contagious once the shingles rash has developed crust or has started to scab over.
Precautions to Take Around People With Shingles
If you’ve had chickenpox or shingles before (which over 95% of the US population has) or you’ve received the chickenpox vaccine, you don’t have to worry about getting infected yourself since you’re immune to the virus. However, you don’t want to unintentionally spread the virus to those who’ve never had chickenpox.
If you’re in contact with someone with shingles, you should avoid directly touching their rash. You should also avoid touching their clothes, bedding, towels, or anything else that might have touched their rash. If you must touch these items, you should wash your hands thoroughly immediately after contact. Even if you’ve already had chickenpox, if you get the fluid from the sores on your hands, you could potentially spread the virus on accident. You could touch a doorknob and leave some of the virus behind. Wash your hands often to avoid this.
If you haven’t had chickenpox before and haven’t been vaccinated, you should avoid direct contact with shingles sores and should also avoid contact with anything the sores might have touched (clothes, bedding, towels, etc.). Also, you should go get the chickenpox vaccine; anyone 12 months or older is eligible to receive the vaccine.
Precautions to Take If You Have Shingles
If you have shingles currently and are trying to avoid spreading it, the best thing you can do is cover your rash. According to the NY Department of Health, the risk of spreading the virus is low if the rash is covered. If you have shingles, you should keep your rash covered, not touch or scratch the rash, and wash your hands often to prevent the spread of the virus.
Also, according to the CDC, until your rash has developed crusts, you should avoid contact with the following groups:
- Pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
- Infants who have not yet had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
- People with weakened immune systems such as people receiving immunosuppressive medications or undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients, and people with HIV
These people are the most at risk for catching chickenpox.
Conclusion: Is Shingles Contagious?
In short, yes. Here are the key points to remember about shingles transmission:
- Shingles is the reactivation of chickenpox; you can only get shingles if you’ve previously had chickenpox.
- Shingles can only be spread to those who’ve never had chickenpox before (and who haven’t had the chickenpox vaccine).
- Shingles can be transmitted through contact with open sores or fluid from the sores.
- Before the sores appear and once they scab over, the virus is not contagious.
- The period during which shingles is contagious is between 1 and 4 weeks.
- If you’ve had chickenpox before (or have had the vaccine) and are around someone with shingles, you don’t need to worry because you’re immune to the virus; however, wash your hands to avoid spreading it to others.
- If you’ve never had chickenpox and have not had the vaccine, then you should avoid contact with the sores and with anything the sores have touched (i.e. bedding). You should also consider getting the chickenpox vaccine.
- If you have shingles and are trying to avoid spreading it, cover your rash, wash your hands often, and avoid direct contact with infants, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems.