Is shingles contagious?
You can get shingles only if you have already had chickenpox. Sometimes people think they haven't had chickenpox, but they may have been too young to remember having the disease, or they may have had such a mild case that it wasn't diagnosed at the time.
The herpes varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox retreats to nerves located near the spine, where the virus remains dormant until it re-emerges as shingles, often during a period of stress or weakened immunity.
You cannot give shingles to someone else, and you cannot catch shingles from someone with shingles.
However, if you have an active attack of shingles, you can give someone chickenpox if that person makes direct contact with the sores and has never been exposed to chickenpox. Keeping the sores covered under clothing or by plasters will help prevent the spreading of the virus - and chickenpox - to others.
Can shingles be prevented?
A vaccine, called Zostavax can help prevent an attack of shingles or help prevent a recurrence. The Department of Health is planning a shingles vaccination programme for those between 70 and 79. The vaccine is also available privately to people over 50.
Who should not get the vaccination?
The vaccine is not recommended for post-herpetic neuralgia once it has developed. If you have an active case of shingles, you should wait until the rash disappears.
There are some people who should not be vaccinated with Zostavax, including those who have had a severe allergic reaction to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin. Other people who should not be vaccinated include:
- Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding (there's no research on the affects the vaccination could have on a foetus or baby)
- People with a weakened immune system, such as those with HIV/AIDs
- People taking medications that weaken the immune system, such as steroids
- Cancer patients being treated with radiotherapy or chemotherapy
- Those with cancer that affects the lymphatic system or bone marrow, such as lymphoma or leukaemia.
Does the vaccination have any side effects?
The most common side effects associated with the vaccine are redness, soreness, swelling or itching at the injection site and headache. In some people, a chickenpox-like rash appears near the injection site. If a rash appears, it should be covered as a precaution against giving chickenpox to someone else.