Medical Q&As

Shingles - contagious?

My wife has a series of painful blisters across her midriff and has been diagnosed with shingles. Her doctor says that this condition is highly infectious. What precautions should the rest of the family take to avoid getting shingles?

You cannot catch shingles from another person therefore you and your family do not have to take precautions to avoid contracting it. Shingles arises within an individual that has already been infected with chicken pox and the virus remains dormant in their system for many years. Then several years later the dormant virus reawakens and the person develops shingles the second time round. Shingles and chicken pox are both caused by the same virus. Your wife did not catch shingles from somebody else nor is she at risk of spreading it to you and your family. However, your doctor is correct when he says that your wife is infectious because the blisters on her skin are teeming with virus, which can be spread to other people. Therefore it is possible that your wife could spread chicken pox to other people that had not been previously exposed to that virus. In other words she could give somebody else chicken pox but not shingles. However, since the virus is contained in blisters on her midriff, which is presumably covered with clothing, the risk of spread must be extremely small. If the blisters were on her face the risk of spreading the virus would be greater because the blisters would be open to the air and not covered with clothing. If you and your family have previously been exposed to chickenpox then you are not at risk. Your wife will cease to be infectious once new crops of blisters have stopped erupting on her skin and all the lesions have dried out. It is not necessary to wait until every blemish on her skin has disappeared. It is safe to regard her as being non-infectious at the stage of scab formation.