Is Shingles Contagious? How Shingles Spreads

Medically Reviewed By Amanda Caldwell, MSN, APRN-C
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A person with shingles cannot give it to another person. But they can pass on the virus that causes shingles and chickenpox to people who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine. Shingles is an infection of the varicella-zoster virus. This same virus also causes chickenpox. With shingles, a painful rash can develop on the body and face. Not everyone gets a rash.

Shingles itself is not contagious. But you can pass on varicella-zoster, the virus that causes shingles, to other people. A person who has not had chickenpox can get the infection through direct contact with fluid from the shingles rash.

Read on for information about shingles, including how the virus spreads, when you can pass it on to others, and what you can do to stop the spread.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a painful, tingling skin rash with blisters that can appear anywhere on the body. It typically forms on the waist or chest on one side of the body. It can also affect the face or around the eyes.

The varicella-zoster virus causes shingles. That same virus also causes chickenpox. People with the varicella-zoster virus can get chickenpox. After a case of chickenpox, the virus lives in the nerves in an inactive state. Later in life, the virus may reactivate and cause shingles. 

Advancing age, stress, illness, and a weakened immune system can trigger the virus to reactivate and cause shingles. With shingles, the virus attacks nerve cells, causing severe nerve pain.

Some people experience tingling, numbness, itching, or electrical sensations in the area before the rash develops. Other symptoms include headache, fever, and fatigue.

Within 1–14 days of initial symptoms, the rash appears, followed by fluid-filled blisters. This can be very painful. The rash is typically present for 2–3 weeks before it scabs over and goes away. A shingles infection typically lasts anywhere from 3–5 weeks.

To learn more about what shingles is read here. 

When is the shingles virus contagious?

Shingle rash with blisters
This is a blister caused by shingles, which is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. NIAID, CC BY SA 4.0 via Wikimedia

A person with shingles can pass it on to someone else from when the blisters form until they clear up. The fluid within the blisters contains the virus. People can transmit the virus through direct contact with the fluid from the blisters. 

Anyone who comes into contact with the fluid by touching it exposes themselves to the virus. People who have never had exposure to the virus are at risk of getting chickenpox. Those who have had chickenpox are not at risk of getting shingles by exposure to someone with shingles.

People who are at risk from the virus are those who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine

If you have shingles, be especially careful around:

  • pregnant people (the varicella-zoster virus can cause developmental issues for a fetus)
  • people with weakened  immune systems 
  • older adults
  • babies under 1 year old
  • people who have not had chickenpox or the vaccine

When your shingles scab over and you no longer have a fluid present from the blisters, you are no longer contagious. 

How can you affect others when you have shingles?

Shingles does not spread from person to person. What can pass on is the varicella-zoster virus from the fluid in shingles blisters. 

When you have shingles with an active rash, it is possible to pass on the virus to anyone who has not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine.

Once a person has the virus, they may have a chickenpox infection and possibly later in life have shingles.

Who is at greatest risk from the virus that causes shingles?

People who are at risk from the varicella-zoster virus are those who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine

If you have shingles, be especially careful around:

  • pregnant people (the varicella-zoster virus can cause developmental issues for a fetus)
  • people with weakened immune systems 
  • older adults
  • babies under 1 year old
  • people who have not had chickenpox or the vaccine

How do you prevent spreading the virus that causes shingles?

To help decrease your risk of passing on the virus:

  • Cover your rash with a bandage.
  • Dispose of the bandage into the trash right away when you change it.
  • Try not to touch or itch the rash.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

This is especially important when living in close quarters with someone who has not had chickenpox before. 

How do you prevent shingles?

People can lower their risk of shingles by getting the shingles vaccine. The Shringrix vaccine also reduces the risk of severe shingles symptoms and complications if you get shingles.

Shingrix is 97% effective at preventing shingles in people with healthy immune systems ages 50–69 years, and 91% effective in the 70 and older age group. 

People ages 50 and older or people 18 years and older with weakened immune systems can get the vaccine.

Summary

The reactivity of the varicella-zoster virus causes shingles. The same virus causes chickenpox as well. After chickenpox goes away, the virus lays dormant in the nerves until it reactivates. During shingles, a rash and fluid-filled blisters form on the torso or face, typically on one side. The condition is usually very painful.

Shingles itself is not contagious. The virus is contagious, and you can transmit it by coming in contact with the fluid in the blisters. You can prevent the virus from spreading by covering blisters and avoiding close physical contact with people who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox virus.

People who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine can get chickenpox and possibly later in life have shingles.

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Medical Reviewer: Amanda Caldwell, MSN, APRN-C
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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