Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, December 2011.
This section contains answers to common questions about this topic. Questions have been suggested by health professionals, website feedback and requests via email.
Shingles can’t be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes shingles (varicella zoster) can be spread from someone who has shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox before. This is because chickenpox is caused by the same virus.
You can only catch chickenpox from a person with shingles if you haven’t had chickenpox in the past. Once you’ve had chickenpox, the varicella zoster virus stays in your body and you won’t catch it again. You can’t catch shingles from a person who has chickenpox, nor can you catch shingles from somebody who has shingles.
Shingles is less contagious than chickenpox. If you have shingles, the risk of spreading the virus is low as long as the rash is covered. This is because the virus can only spread through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters.
If you have shingles, you’re not infectious before the blistering rash appears, nor are you infectious when your blisters have crusted over and turned into scabs.
Yes, there is a vaccine for the varicella zoster virus, but it’s not yet approved for use in the UK for shingles. In the USA, the vaccine is recommended for people older than 60.
Shingles can affect anyone who has previously had chickenpox, but it’s far more common in people older than 50. In clinical trials, the vaccine reduced the risk of shingles by half. It can also reduce the pain of shingles in people who still get shingles after being vaccinated.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended a shingles vaccination programme for people over 70 in the UK. However, the vaccine is still under review and not yet available.
There is a varicella zoster vaccine that can help prevent chickenpox in the UK. This will protect you from catching the virus in the first place. However, it’s only recommended for certain people, such as healthcare workers and for those in contact with someone with a weak immune system (for example, people that have a disease, such as cancer, or are receiving medicines, such as steroids or chemotherapy).
No, you shouldn't go swimming if you have shingles. This puts other people at risk of becoming infected with the virus that can cause chickenpox if they haven’t had it. Your blisters could also become infected.
The shingles virus can only spread through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters. Going swimming increases your chance of coming into direct contact with other people and puts them at risk. Wait until your blisters have dried and crusted over before you go swimming. Don’t share towels while you have shingles.
If you have shingles, try to keep your rash as clean and dry as possible. This prevents your blisters from getting infected. Going swimming in the sea or in a swimming pool increases your chance of coming into contact with bacteria. This could infect your blistering rash and delay the healing process.
Don’t take part in any contact sports, such as rugby, while you have shingles. Wait until your blisters have dried up and turned into scabs before returning to your usual activities.
Depending on how severe your pain is, your GP may offer you a treatment or a medicine to help reduce any discomfort.
The pain caused by shingles can sometimes stay after your rash has gone. This is called post-herpetic neuralgia. It’s more common as you get older. Up to half of people who are older than 50 who get shingles will have some form of post-herpetic neuralgia.
For most people with post-herpetic neuralgia, the pain will subside within a few months. However, for some people the pain can persist for a long time, sometimes even years.
Over-the-counter painkillers (such as paracetamol) may help relieve mild pain. If your pain is more severe, your GP may prescribe you medicines that are usually used to treat conditions of the nervous system. These include gabapentin and pregabalin, which are anticonvulsants (mainly used to treat epilepsy), and amitriptyline (mainly used to treat depression). Always ask your GP for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.
Your GP may offer you a cream to apply to your skin. These creams will usually contain capsaicin, which has been shown to provide some pain relief. You can also use topical lidocaine ointment, which has a numbing effect.
Opioids, for example codeine and morphine, are sometimes prescribed, although there is limited evidence to suggest that they reduce the pain caused by post-herpetic neuralgia. A direct injection of a corticosteroid (a type of medicine used to treat inflammation or swelling) into your spine may help severe pain, but this is rarely done.
Talk to your GP for advice about the most suitable treatment for you.
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This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
Publication date: December 2011
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