Shingles is part of the Herpes family of diseases – a sibling of chickenpox, it may also be known as Herpes Zoster. The first thing many sufferers want to know about shingles is if it is contagious.
Shingles is a viral infection recognized by the development of painful blisters on the skin – the virus which causes these blisters is the same one which causes chickenpox. Those who have suffered chicken pox as children are at the highest risk developing shingles as the virus remains in the body for a lifetime even after being fully recovered from the dose of chicken pox.
Shingles is contagious when the sufferer experiences the open blisters which are a result of the disease – if a healthy person comes into direct contact with these open wounds then they are more likely to catch the disease, although those who have had a dose of chicken pox are at a high risk those who have never had chicken pox are also susceptible. Shingles is only contagious when the blisters are filled with clear fluid but are yet to crust over and dry up. It is this clear fluid which is contagious. Once the blisters have scabbed over the contagious phase of shingles can be said to be over. It may be helpful to cover the blisters during the early stages to assist in containing the condition. It should be remembered that shingles is not distributed aerially and so the coughs and sneezes of a sufferer will not be contagious. The elderly and very young as well as pregnant women and those with a compromised immune system should avoid contact with a shingles sufferer during the contagious pre-scab stage of the disease.
Patients are more likely to contract shingles when conditions are favourable – constant stress, compromised immune system etc will always make a person more vulnerable to infection as will certain medical conditions such as AIDS. As a bout of shingles appears it is much more painful than chickenpox, it will also be accompanied by symptoms which are more flu-like. These may include extreme fatigue, prolonged fever with headache, nausea, itching and the development of small, painful blisters in an apparent belt or band on the torso – it is this distinctive shingles symptom which will assist the medical practitioner in making a diagnosis.
At present there is no effective medication for the treatment of shingles, however antiviral medication can be prescribed which will aid recovery and help avoid complications. One complication of shingles may be chronic neuralgia – this occurs when shingles is in the advanced stage. Careful observation and good medical care should alleviate this condition – it is not unheard of for chronic pain to continue in the affected tissues after the blisters/rash have disappeared. Untreated shingles may lead to more severe health problems such as pneumonia, loss of vision, encephalitis and, more rarely, death.
Whether a patient is in the contagious stage of shingles or not it is important to seek medical advice in order to avoid the somewhat unpleasant complications that may arise and to receive prompt help with management of the outbreak.