I’m a caregiver for fragile elderly people, so when one of my patients called in a panic, because he thought he had bed bugs, I jumped in the car and headed his way. As soon as I saw the rash on his chest, I knew it wasn’t insect bites. A line of red, angry blisters wrapped around half his torso, but there were no marks on his arms and legs where bugs are more likely to attack.
I rushed him to an emergency clinic where a doctor diagnosed him with shingles. The receptionist behind the desk quickly grabbed a giant bottle of hand sanitizer, squeezed a dollop into her own palm then offered it to me. “Shingles are highly contagious,” she said by way of explanation. The doctor concurred.
Am I Infected?
Two days later I woke up scratching. There were two small whelps side by side on my leg. “Is this how it starts?” I wondered. Not wanting to risk infecting anyone else, I called my doctor’s office and asked for the next available appointment.
My doctor looked that the spots on my leg and then asked me if I’d ever had chicken pox. Yes, I had. “You don’t have shingles,” she said. In fact, she told me there’s no way my patient could have given me shingles. It’s impossible to get shingles from another person.
The Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV)
VZV is a single virus that causes two diseases: chicken pox and shingles. When your body is infected with VZV, you get chicken pox. After the disease runs its course the virus becomes dormant. It’s still in your body; in fact it’ll be in your body for the rest of your life.
That’s a good thing in one way, because it means you can never have chicken pox again. You can only be infected by VZV once. If you’re exposed to it again later, nothing will happen to you as a result of that additional exposure.
Unfortunately, sometimes that dormant virus becomes active again. When reactivated, the virus causes you to have shingles. According to the CDC, the reasons the virus becomes active again are “not fully known.” However people with compromised immune systems and the elderly are more at risk.
The Virus is Contagious
Even though you can’t catch shingles, you can catch VZV. If you’ve ever had chicken pox or if you’ve had the chicken pox virus, you are not at risk. You already have VZV, so you can’t catch it again.
However people who’ve never had chicken pox or been vaccinated against it, can catch VZV from people who have shingles. During the period when the rash is blistering, but before the blisters begin crusting over, a person can be infected with VZV through direct contact with the liquid inside the blisters.
Here’s the weird part. If a patient with shingles infects you with VZV, you won’t get shingles; you’ll get chicken pox. Hence, it’s impossible for a person with shingles to give it to someone else. You can only get shingles from yourself.
If you’re confused, don’t worry. The important thing to remember is this: if you’ve had chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine, you don’t have to worry about being around someone with shingles.
If you haven’t had chicken pox or the vaccine, you should avoid people with shingles, or you might get chicken pox. It’s actually more difficult to get VZV from someone with shingles than from someone with chicken pox. With shingles, avoiding transmission is a simple matter of keeping the blisters covered.
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