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Are Shingles Contagious?

Updated on April 30, 2011

Are shingles contagious? The answer may surprise you. People with shingles can transmit an illness from the virus that causes shingles, but the illness is not what you would expect.

When people think of a contagious illness they think the transmitted illness is exactly the same. This is a unique characteristic of the illness shingles. Shingles is contagious, but someone with the illness shingles cannot give you shingles.

People who are affected by shingles cannot give you this common disease but another common disease called chickenpox. How can that be? The first thing to understand is that shingles are caused by the same virus as chickenpox.

Most people who get chickenpox contract the  illness as children. Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. After a child recovers from chickenpox, the virus doesn't disappear. The varicella-zoster virus lays dormant near nerve fibers.

The virus that causes chickenpox could stay inactive throughout the person's life. However, the virus may become active again. This usually occurs in adulthood though it can occur in childhood in rare cases.

The only way to get shingles is from the awakening of the virus present from chickenpox. If someone with shingles is around people who have not had chickenpox, the person with shingles can give them chickenpox.


The most infamous symptom of chickenpox is the pox or the noticeable red, itchy, blistering rash. The rash can be mild with only a few blisters on the stomach. In some cases, the rash is severe and may spread all over the body including the scalp and even in the mouth.

People with chickenpox may also experience fever, lack of appetite, and a headache. A common home remedy for chickenpox is an oatmeal bath to soothe the skin and reduce itchiness.

To prevent the spread of chickenpox from an active shingles outbreak, the affected area of the skin should be covered when in public or around children who might not be immune to chickenpox. Someone who gets chickenpox from a person with shingles could develop shingles later in life just like anyone else.

Getting chickenpox from someone with shingles as opposed to being exposed to chickenpox doesn't increase the risk of shingles. Shingles most commonly affects older adults. The virus that causes shingles may become active again due to stress or an impaired immune system, but the reactivation of the virus may not have an identifiable cause.

Twenty-five percent of adults develop shingles in their lifetime. When the varicella-zoster virus becomes active after being dormant, the person may experience burning, itchiness, or pain in the affected area. Shingles causes blisters that can be painful. Shingles outbreaks on the face can lead to complications such as blindness caused by shingles affecting the eye.

Are shingles contagious? I hope this article explained the complex answer to what seems like a simple question.


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