Is shingles contagious? If yes, then how can you prevent this infection?

Nipah Virus epidemic

Last Updated October 11th, 2019

What is shingles?

A severe skin reaction due to the activation of Varicella zoster virus is called shingles.  It has been found that people who have already had chickenpox earlier are more likely to get shingles when the virus reactivates itself.  Chickenpox itself is known to be highly itchy and uncomfortable whereas shingles is a more severe reaction since it affects the nerves.

The symptoms include painful rash associated with flu-like symptoms which can last for several weeks.  It has been determined that shingles generally affects older people since they have a weak immune system.  It should be noted that the risk factors is not only carrying the virus but also having a weak immune system which determines if you are likely to be affected by this condition.

Facts

  • It has been estimated that at least one out of three people will develop shingles in the United States at some point in their lifetime.
  • According to a survey, it has been found that around 90% of adults in the United States carry Varicella zoster virus.
  • Studies have found that herpes zoster virus is at least 50% lower in blacks as compared to whites.
  • Around 1000 cases of shingles are reported every year in the United States.
  • Around 4% of people affected with herpes zoster virus require hospitalization due to complications.

How is it caused?

As discussed earlier, it is the Varicella zoster virus that is responsible for shingles.  Varicella zoster virus is widely known to cause chickenpox.  If a person is affected by chickenpox, the virus does not completely get eliminated and stays dormant in the nervous system for several years.

When this person gets older and gradually has a weaker immune system, the virus reactivates travelling through the nervous system and affecting the skin as well.  Varicella zoster virus belongs to the herpes zoster family which is known to cause genital herpes and cold sores in the mouth.

SHINGLES (HERPES ZOSTER)Since shingles occurs usually in people who have experienced chickenpox, there is a clear indication as to who would probably be affected by this virus.  A person practically becomes a carrier of the virus when he or she is affected with chickenpox.  These viruses would then settle in the cranial nerve, autonomic ganglia, as well as the dorsal nerve under the dormant state.

This state of the virus generally would go unnoticed until it resurfaces at a later stage.  This dormant state of the virus depends on how strong the immune system of the person is.  The virus would remain in the dormant state for years and even decades if the immune system is strong.  When the person becomes older and gradually has a lower immune system, the virus would come out of the dormant state and attack the nervous system and the connecting tissue.

Symptoms of shingles

The symptoms of shingles are easily noticeable and can easily be identified.  Any rash associated with excruciating pain and burning sensation is a clear indication of shingles.  People who have experienced it relate the pain to be so severe that it can be compared with kidney stones and childbirth.  Some of the common symptoms are discussed below.

  • A patch of red rash associated with blister which gradually spreads over a period of time.  The rash could appear at any part of the body including face, stomach, back, as well as back.
  • Majority of shingles cases report rash in the abdomen area which starts in the middle and spread on one side of the body.
  • A sensation of pins and needles is experienced.
  • The patch of red rash can turn into blisters after few days with associated burning sensation.
  • In the initial stages, the rash is also associated with severe itching sensation.
  • You may also experience flu-like symptoms with body pain, tiredness, and fever.
  • You may also experience loss of appetite.
  • A case of postherpetic neuralgia occurs even after the symptoms clear up.

Various stages of shingles

Chickenpox blistersShingles generally develops quite slowly in stages.  Majority of shingles cases are identified when the rash develops.  Rashes associated with shingles occur at a later stage when the virus has become fully reactivated.  It might take several days to couple of weeks for the rash to develop on the skin indicating a shingles outbreak.

Initial stage

In the initial stages, the virus travels within the nervous system.  This is called the prodromal stage.  The virus tends to target a particular side of the body where nerves branching out from the spinal cord connect skin tissues.  During this stage, you may experience symptoms similar to flu-like infection.  Some of the initial symptoms resembling a flu infection include headache, tiredness, body pain, swelling in the lymph nodes, as well as sensitivity to light.

Secondary stage

During the secondary stage, you may experience as if ants are walking on your body which is then followed by persistent itching and burning sensation.  After couple of days, patches of red raised rash appear causing severe pain with stinging sensation.

Final stage

This is the stage where the virus is at the peak where the rash turns into blisters causing severe irritation and pain.  This is also considered the active stage and may extend up to several weeks.  The blisters formed on the skin tend to weep fluids during this period and slowly scab over and heal.

What is the longevity of shingles symptoms?

Skin problems in children_herpesAs discussed earlier, the symptoms would take a considerable amount of time to clear up.  In the majority of cases, the symptoms would clear up within four weeks from the onset of symptoms.  In rare cases, some of the symptoms would still be prevalent even after the rash and blisters have cleared up.  This is true when people above 50 years old get affected by this condition.  There have been reports where in extreme cases people may experience sensitivity as well as burning sensation of the skin that may persist for several years.

The biggest problem associated with shingles is that it can interfere with your daily routine.  The pain and burning sensation associated with them would prevent you from having a normal appetite, do any physical activity, or even have a shower.  It can even prevent you from going to work or even travel.

Risk factors associated with shingles

Shingles can affect anybody and everybody.  As discussed earlier, it has been found that people who have been affected with chickenpox have a higher chance of acquiring this infection later in their life.  Some of the risk factors associated with shingles include:

  • Individuals who have a weaker immune system such as older aged people.  Shingles can also occur to children, but are considerably milder with less pain and associated complications.
  • It should be noted that shingles virus attacks commonly older women than older men and these is no clear reason behind this.
  • People suffering from underlying health conditions affecting the immune system are again at a higher risk of acquiring this infection.  Some of examples of these health conditions include cancers, autoimmune disease, neoplastic disorders, etc.
  • People taking certain kind of drugs that may lower the immune system such as corticosteroids also fall under high risk group.
  • If you have a family history of herpes zoster, which means if any of your immediate relative has had a herpes zoster infection in the past, then it is highly possible that you may acquire it sooner or later.
  • Race also plays an important role.  It has been found that people of Caucasian origin have twice as many chances of acquiring this infection than the non-Caucasians.
  • Shingles during pregnancy is extremely rare, but if it occurs can cause problems such as premature delivery as well as reduced birth weight.
  • Another possibility but less likely risk factor is by activating the dorsal nerve root.  Since the virus generally is present in the dormant state in the nervous system, especially the dorsal nerve roots, an accidental injury can awaken the virus.
  • Finally, stress too can play an important role in increasing the risk factor.  Studies have indicated that high level of stress can decrease the gut health, which directly impacts the immune system and opens the door for the virus to attack.

Is shingles contagious?

Nipah Virus epidemicThis seems to be a valid question considering the fact that the same virus which causes chickenpox is highly contagious.  As a matter of fact, it should be noted that chickenpox is highly contagious, but shingles are far less contagious.  This does not rule out that shingles cannot be contagious, which means the virus can spread when there is a direct contact with the weeping fluid from the blisters.  Since shingles occur in patches of rash unlike the chickenpox, they can easily be covered and prevented from spreading.  It should be noted that shingles cannot be contracted with just a casual contact such as hand shaking, sneezing, or coughing.  Finally, once the blisters get scabbed over, the infection is no longer contagious and the infection cannot be transmitted from one person to another.

Can shingles be prevented?

Preventing a viral infection to occur is something that is practically not possible.  There is a debate that when chickenpox has a vaccine then why not for shingles.  It is very true that both these infections are caused by the same virus, but it should be noted that vaccines used to prevent chickenpox is given to infants and not adults.

A study has indicated that vaccination for chickenpox can increase the chances of acquiring shingles later in the life.  It is believed that once a person is affected from chickenpox, the body actually builds a resistance towards the virus and this makes the person resistant to the virus causing shingles.

On the other hand, if vaccine is administered for chickenpox during infancy, the immune system does not build a resistance for the virus and there is a high possibility that he or she may acquire this infection later in their life.

In the recent years, vaccines for shingles have been approved by FDA.  Two types of vaccines have been approved namely Zostavax and Shingrix.  Zostavax is approved only for people are 60 years and older and has a shelf life of only five years.  On the other hand, Shingrix provides a longer protection and is approved for people who are 50 years and older.  The point to be noted here is that unlike the chickenpox vaccine, the shingles vaccine does not guarantee you that you will not be infected.

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