Are shingles contagious?

are shingles contagious

Shingles (herpes zoster) most commonly occurs in older adults. The medical term for shingles is acute herpes zoster. Shingles or herpes zoster is a painful and sometimes debilitating viral disease that afflicts roughly one million Americans a year. The Herpes Zoster virus can stay in the body for a large number of years, frequently from the time of a childhood episode of the chickenpox. As people get older, their immune system naturally weakens to some viruses, such as herpes zoster. The virus normally lays dormant in nerve cells, but in certain people the virus reactivates years, or even decades, later and causes herpes zoster. Patients with herpes zoster are contagious to those who lack immunity, but less so than patients with varicella. Unlike herpes simplex I, the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) does not usually flare up more than once in adults with typically functioning immune systems. Any person who has had the chickenpox infection or vaccine can get the herpes zoster virus that causes shingles. About 20 percent of people who have had chickenpox will develop herpes zoster.

Postherpetic neuralgia

Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) , the pain that sometimes lingers after a bout of shingles (herpes zoster), is the most prevalent and important complication of herpes zoster. Many herpes zoster patients suffer from chronic pain associated with postherpetic neuralgia. For the most part, doctors treat herpes zoster with antiviral medications to diminish the incidence and duration of postherpetic neuralgia.


Shingles and chickenpox are caused by herpes zoster. The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles (herpes zoster). Chicken pox is caused by the varicella zoster virus.

Shingles Mechanism

The pain associated with herpes zoster is understood to be due to irritation of the sensory nerve fibers in which the virus reproduces. Shingles lesions are usual at the onset but may turn into ulcers that do not heal. After a chickenpox infection, the virus stays dormant in sensory nerve cell bodies.

In 1888, it was suggested by von Bokay that chickenpox and herpes zoster were due to the identical causal agent, now known to be the VZV virus. Shingles (herpes zoster) is a viral infection of the nerve roots. Like its close relative, HHV1, herpes zoster likes to infect skin cells and nerve cells. Reactivation of the latent virus in neurosensory ganglia produces the characteristic manifestations of herpes zoster, commonly known as shingles. Shingles is caused by a particular type of herpes virus, varicella zoster. Varicella zoster virus is a member of the herpesvirus family. VZV is an alphaherpesvirus that causes two diseases, chickenpox and zoster (the reactivation of the virus that causes shingles). Like other herpes viruses, the varicella-zoster virus has an initial infectious stage (chickenpox) followed by a dormant stage.

Other Treatments

In some cases a mild narcotic is needed to control the burning pain associated with herpes zoster. Aluminum acetate or soaks with burrow solution can be both soothing and cleansing in patients with herpes zoster. In contrast to their effect on herpes simplex infections, topical steroids do not exacerbate herpes zoster infections. A varicella-zoster virus vaccine reduced the burden of illness of herpes zoster in older adults. Zostavax is a vaccine intended for the prevention of herpes zoster (shingles) and herpes zoster related postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). The vaccine challenge reactivates cellular immunity to VZV, preventing or weakening occurrence of herpes zoster. The zoster vaccine markedly reduced mortality from herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia among older adults.

The pain of Herpes Zoster can be quite significant as the nerve endings are affected. In contrast with the pain of trigeminal neuralgia, the pain of herpes zoster is enduring and sustained. MRI findings in cases of herpes zoster myelitis are largely abnormal, but non-specific.

Shingles Complications

Disseminated zoster is a great deal more likely to occur in immune compromised individuals. As with disseminated chickenpox, disseminated herpes zoster, which migrates to other organs, can be serious to life-threatening, particularly if it affects the lungs. These patients can develop chronic herpes zoster, with formation of new lesions without the healing of the already existing ones. Inflammation of the membrane around the brain (meningitis) or in the brain itself (encephalitis) is a rare complication in people with herpes zoster. If it occurs as a result of herpes zoster, brain inflammation is likely to be mild except in immune compromised patients. Herpes zoster may recur, because the virus can remain in the nerve cells at the base of the spine for decades. Rarely, however, the pain of herpes zoster affects sleep, mood, work, and overall quality of life. Studies are being undertaken to see if varicella vaccine can boost cellular immunity of older individuals so that herpes zoster can be prevented. The pain and discomfort of the active herpes zoster infection is the primary symptom and complication of herpes zoster. Additional potentially serious complications can result from herpes zoster. Encephalitis and pneumonia are rare complications of herpes zoster.

Shingles Transmission

There is no agreement on how acute herpes zoster (shingles) should be managed in general practice. Localized herpes zoster requires secretion precautions to guard against spreading of infection by direct contact with secretions from vesicles and from secretion-contaminated articles. In those with damaged immune systems, herpes zoster might be widespread (disseminated), causing serious illness. Although anyone who has had chickenpox can subsequently have herpes zoster (shingles), it is much more prevalent in individuals older than 50 years. The virus causing herpes zoster (shingles) is already present from an earlier infection with chickenpox.

Herpes Zoster Risk Factors

The incidence of herpes zoster increases with age, and is associated with age-related normal waning in cell-mediated immunity. The incidence of herpes zoster in HIV-infected individuals is the same as age-matched HIV-negative persons. Researchers noted a high incidence of herpes zoster in the wake of psychic trauma. Cancer places people at risk for herpes zoster. Chemotherapy increases the risk for herpes zoster. Immune compromised persons, particularly those with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, have a much higher risk of developing herpes zoster ophthalmicus than the normal population. With more advanced immunodeficiency, herpes zoster tends to become generalized. Up to 15 % of those who have had varicella disease will have herpes zoster at some point in their lives. If the person's immunity is intact, herpes zoster is mainly self-limited. Approximately 10 percent to 15 percent of all patients with herpes zoster develop PHN, which, once rooted, can persist for many years.

Shingles-Induced Eye and Ear Disease

A patient with herpes zoster on the face should see a physician immediately, because infection of the eye might lead to blindness. Without antivirals, 50%-70% of herpes zoster ophthalmicus cases develop ocular complications. Antiviral therapy is mandatory for patients with herpes zoster ophthalmicus, primarily to prevent potentially sight-threatening ocular complications. Early diagnosis and care can help greatly in reducing serious complications from herpes zoster eye infections. Fortunately, blindness following herpes zoster is rare. If the eyes become involved (herpes zoster ophthalmicus), a significant infection can occur that is hard to treat and can threaten vision. Ramsay Hunt syndrome (also called herpes zoster oticus) occurs when herpes zoster involves the nerves in the face and ears. Ramsay Hunt syndrome type I, also known as herpes zoster oticus, is a prevalent complication of shingles. Ramsay Hunt syndrome occurs when herpes zoster leads to facial paralysis and rash on the ear (herpes zoster oticus) or mouth. Because herpes zoster oticus is a rare disease with good prognosis for survival, there is little neuropathologic material available. Ten percent to 15% of cases of herpes zoster involve the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve.

Antibiotic Treatment for Shingles

Awareness of the complications associated with herpes zoster and recognition of the indications for antiviral treatment are essential. Doctors treat herpes zoster with antiviral medications to diminish the incidence and extent of postherpetic neuralgia. Three antiviral drugs are available for the treatment of herpes zoster:
acyclovir (Zovirax)
famcyclovir (Famvir)
valacyclovir (Valtrex)

Famcyclovir or valacyclovir may be used to treat herpes zoster in older children who can swallow pills. Antibiotics prevent infection from other organisms that may get in your eyes while you have herpes zoster. Acyclovir halts progression of herpes zoster in immune compromised patients. Acyclovir is used to treat herpes infections of the skin, lip, and genitals, herpes zoster (shingles), and chickenpox. Valacyclovir and famciclovir are preferred over acyclovir in the treatment of herpes zoster because they have better pharmacokinetic properties and simpler timings for administration. Brivudin, a newer antiviral agent used in treating herpes zoster, is significantly better than standard acyclovir. Brivudin is also as effective as famcyclovir in alleviating acute signs and symptoms of herpes zoster. Acute pain responds to prompt treatment of herpes zoster, and immediate therapy lessens the duration of pain in PHN patients. Patients should be advised to begin treatment as soon as possible after a diagnosis of herpes zoster. All patients with acute herpes zoster ophthalmicus should receive antiviral therapy with the objective of preventing ocular complications. Descyclovir, famcyclovir, valacyclovir, and pencyclovir are similar to acyclovir and may be used to treat herpes zoster. Tricyclic antidepressants help relieve several of the symptoms, including depression and pain, that affect herpes zoster sufferers with postherpetic neuralgia.


The incidence and severity of herpes zoster and PHN increase with advanced age. The virus that causes shingles (herpes zoster) can be passed on to others, but they will develop chickenpox, not shingles. Unlike herpes simplex I, the varicella-zoster virus does not typically flare up more than once in adults with normally functioning immune systems. People with herpes zoster are understood contagious to persons who have never had chickenpox. You experience herpes zoster or shingles from your own chickenpox virus, not from someone else. Once approved, vaccination will become the main strategy to prevent herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia. People who have never had chickenpox can catch chickenpox if they have close contact with a person who has herpes zoster or shingles. By its very nature, herpes zoster infections are prone to return from time to time, especially when the immune system is weakened.

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