What is shingles? Shingles, also called herpes zoster or zona is a painful skin rash that typically affects adults. The virus which causes this condition belongs to the same family of viruses as those which cause chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus). In some cases, shingles can result in neurological problems and postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) – long-lasting pain following the original bout with shingles.
This article will explore whether or not shingles spread through the air, as well as other ways in which people contract the virus.
Firstly, we must address the common misconception that a person who has shingles can spread shingles to another person. This is not true. A person must have had chickenpox previously if they develop shingles. However, that is not to say that the varicella-zoster virus is not infectious. Typically, a person who has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine may be infected with varicella-zoster virus from a person who has shingles. This person goes on to develop chickenpox and not shingles.
Transmission of the virus usually occurs via droplets, aerosol, direct contact, or by touching contaminated items (World Health Organization, 2014) such as dressings, sheets, or clothes soiled with discharge from a person who has either chickenpox or shingles. While shingles can spread through the air, the risk is said to be low. This is because there are two main ways the virus spreads: through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash or through contact with the fluid from the shingles sores. Therefore, the stage when one is most infectious is when there are open and fluid-filled blisters being exposed. When these blisters start to dry and crust over, it becomes less contagious.
To prevent transmission of the virus, be it through the air or otherwise, one can consider the following measures:
- Cover open blisters with loose clothing or non-stick dressing, or in cases where shingles are either all over the body or exposed, e.g., face, isolate in a single room until all lesions have crusted over. Going to work or school is also not recommended.
- Prevent others from coming into contact with anything that might have touched the fluid from the shingles sores. Do not share clothes or towels with other uninfected persons, and thoroughly wash or disinfect contaminated clothing.
- Avoid contact with the following people until the rash crusts: pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine; premature or low birth weight infants; people with weakened immune systems, such as people receiving immunosuppressants or undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients, and people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
- Seek medical treatment as soon as possible so that the open blisters can heal quickly, as the fluid from the blisters is highly infectious. The doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir to reduce duration and severity of the infection, or topical ointments for relieving shingles that typically contain topical acyclovir, lidocaine and/or capsaicin. Treatment is most effective when started within 72 hours of the onset of the blisters.
- In the case of oral shingles, a face mask may be helpful to catch aerosols and droplets when one coughs or sneezes. However, one should also dispose of the face mask such that others do not come into contact with the contaminated face mask.
In conclusion, the virus that causes shingles can be spread through the air, but the risk is minimal compared to coming in direct contact with an open blister or coming into contact with the fluids from such blisters. Practicing good hygiene and infection control will help minimize the spread of the virus.
World Health Organization. (2014, April 30). Varicella. World Health Organization.