Shingles is a painful rash caused by an infection of a nerve underneath the skin with the varicella-zoster virus.
What is shingles?
Shingles is a painful, blistery rash in one specific area of your body. Most of us get chickenpox in our lives, usually when we are children. Shingles is a reactivation of that chickenpox virus but only in one nerve root. So instead of getting spots all over the place, the way you do when you have chickenpox, you get them just in one area of your body.
Usually (other than on your head) it will just be on one side of your body, although it may go right round from front to back, following the skin the nerve affects.
The affected skin hurts, and it may start to hurt before the rash appears, and may keep hurting for some time after the rash has gone. You may feel generally off-colour and not yourself.
Can other people catch it?
This one is confusing! Here's the deal. You can catch chickenpox from other people, but you can't catch shingles from other people. You only get shingles from a reactivation of your own chickenpox infection in the past.
So if you have shingles, and you come into contact with somebody else, they cannot "catch" your shingles. But if they have never had chickenpox, it is possible that they could catch chickenpox from you. (And if you had chickenpox, and came into contact with somebody else who had never had chickenpox, they could catch chickenpox. But they couldn't "catch" shingles from your chickenpox.)
To put it another way, no, you don't "catch" shingles. It comes from a virus hiding out in your own body, not from someone else. But if you have shingles, you may be infectious, as it is possible for people to catch chickenpox from you.
Only people who have never had chickenpox are likely to be at risk of catching chickenpox from your shingles. People who have had chickenpox should be immune from catching it again. If the rash is in a covered area of skin, the risk of anyone with whom you are not in close contact catching chickenpox is very low.
Did you find this information useful?
- Immunisation against infectious disease - the Green Book (latest edition); Public Health England
- Shingles, NICE CKS, May 2013 (UK access only)
- NHS complete routine immunisation schedule; GOV.UK
- Gagliardi AM, Andriolo BN, Torloni MR, et al; Vaccines for preventing herpes zoster in older adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Mar 3 3:CD008858. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008858.pub3.
- Who is eligible for the shingles vaccine beyond 2016; Public Health England
- Cohen JI; Clinical practice: Herpes zoster. N Engl J Med. 2013 Jul 18 369(3):255-63. doi: 10.1056/NEJMcp1302674.
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