Is Shingles Contagious?

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Man with Shingles in Neck

Shingles Symptoms and Signs

Often, individuals may also experience other shingles associated symptoms such as

  • headache
  • fever and chills,
  • malaise,
  • nausea,
  • body aches, and
  • swollen lymph glands.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus (also known as VZV, herpes zoster). Shingles usually causes a single strip or patch of painful blisters that wrap around either the left or right side of the patient's torso or extremities, although it may occur on the face. Shingles results from the activation of the chickenpox virus already present, but inactive (dormant), in nerve tissues. The virus remains dormant in spinal nerves (dorsal root ganglia) usually after the person has had chickenpox as a child. The virus can remain dormant in the nerve tissues for many years and then can become activated along an infected nerve or group of nerves, usually in adults (50-60 years and older). However, about 20%-25% of shingles infections occur in individuals less than 20 years old. The shingles virus can even damage the unborn baby and newborns if their mothers develop chickenpox during pregnancy.

Is shingles contagious?

Individuals who never have had chickenpox and have not received the vaccine for chickenpox are susceptible to shingles virus infection. Consequently, shingles disease is contagious for chickenpox by transmission of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) to these individuals. However, the shingles rash is not contagious in that a rash from one individual is unable to spread to another individual so the disease, shingles itself, is not directly contagious. Nevertheless, the disease of shingles can pass the virus from its active rash blisters directly to another individual (an adult, child, or baby) who can become infected with the varicella-zoster virus if the individual is not immune to VZV and develop chickenpox. The chickenpox infection can cause shingles in some individuals later in their life. Shingles, in this manner, may be considered to be indirectly contagious. Moreover, because varicella-zoster virus infection is commonly contagious in the form of chickenpox, and this infection can eventually lead to shingles development in some patients, it is fair for some researchers to say that shingles is indirectly contagious by the spread of chickenpox.

When is shingles contagious?

A rash will begin to appear after a few days of symptoms such as

  • skin tingling,
  • burning, and/or
  • numbness, usually on only one side of the body.

During the appearance of this rash and subsequent blister formation, the patient begins to shed the virus from the skin lesions and is contagious.

Shingles has two stages:

  • a prodromal stage and active stage; and
  • the prodromal stage or period consists of symptoms without the rash while the active stage or period begins when the rash starts.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/22/2016

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