Shingles is a viral infection that is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. People often wonder if shingles is contagious, and for how long does shingles remain contagious. Well, the virus that causes shingles can be transmitted to others. The following HealthHearty write-up provides information on this condition.
As per the statistics given by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, around 1 million Americans receive medical care for shingles or its complications each year.
Shingles, which is also referred to as herpes zoster, is characterized by a blistering skin rash that occurs on one side of the body. People above the age of 50, or those with a weak immune system are more likely to get affected by this condition. For this reason, people who are taking immunosuppressant drugs for the treatment of a chronic illness are vulnerable.
It is the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which is the causative agent of chickenpox, that is responsible for causing shingles. People who have already had chickenpox in childhood could develop shingles later in life. Let’s learn about the contributing factors for this condition.
The Link Between Chickenpox and Shingles
People contract chickenpox on being exposed to VZV for the first time. Chickenpox is often referred to as a classic childhood infection. It is characterized by the development of itchy blisters all over the body. Even after the infection resolves, the varicella-zoster virus lies dormant in the nerve roots near the spinal cord. In fact, it could lie dormant for years until it gets reactivated, and when it does, it gives rise to shingles. Prolonged stress is one of the scenarios in which the inactive virus gets reactivated and escapes from the nerve roots.
How Long Is Shingles Contagious?
It is the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox and shingles. This virus can get transmitted to others due to person-to-person contact. The transmission of the virus is likely to take place when the blisters are in the process of forming. It will continue to remain contagious till all the blisters have crusted over.
For this reason, people affected by shingles should stay away from babies, children, pregnant women, people with a weak immune system, people who have not had chickenpox, or people who have not been vaccinated against chickenpox. Once a person develops chickenpox, he/she cannot contract the virus from others. The virus remains dormant in their body. However, people who have not had chickenpox, are at a risk of getting exposed to the virus, and developing chickenpox. Once infected, these people can develop shingles later in life.
Symptoms of Shingles
The nerve roots that are responsible for supplying sensation to the skin run on each side of the body in pathways. The varicella-zoster virus travels up the nerve roots, following the pathway on one side of the body. In the process, it causes inflammation, thereby giving rise to symptoms such as tingling sensation, itching, pain, photosensitivity, headaches, and flu-like symptoms.
This is followed by the development of a rash (red raised spots) that appears like a strip, along the path of the nerve branch, or on the area of skin supplied by those specific nerve roots. The red spots turn into small fluid-filled blisters, which get dried up within a week, and form scabs. The rash usually heals within two to three weeks.
At times, pain and sensitivity might be felt along the path of the affected nerve branch, even after the visible signs of the viral infection disappear. This condition is called postherpetic neuralgia. The timely diagnosis and treatment of shingles with antiviral drugs can lower the risk of postherpetic neuralgia.
Shingles is more likely to affect adults, but it could affect children as well. Though people usually develop shingles once in a lifetime, in rare cases, shingles may recur. People with a compromised immune system are definitely more likely to get affected.
On a concluding note, only those who have had an episode of chickenpox previously can get affected by herpes zoster or shingles. If a person, who has not had chickenpox in childhood comes into contact with a person affected by shingles, he/she is at a risk of developing chickenpox, and nor shingles. Getting vaccinated for chickenpox is a preventive measure that should be taken to lower the incidence of shingles.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.