How Contagious is Shingles?

Expert Q&A

Shingles is contagious and can cause chicken pox.
It can sometimes be hard to cover shingles lesions, making a person more contagious. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Question. My mom has a current herpes zoster infection (shingles) on her back, with vesicles that are about 3 days old. I have a 2-year-old, and we are visiting her for 10 days. Additionally, my nephew (1-month-old) is visiting. I would like to know, whether, since the virus is the same as the chickenpox virus, the children are at risk of contracting chickenpox? Neither of the children has had the chickenpox vaccine. Simone, Jersey, Channel Islands

Answer. Yes, people with shingles are contagious.

Shingles is Contagious

According to the CDC, 'yes, people with shingles are contagious to persons who have not had chickenpox. Therefore, people who have not had chickenpox can catch chickenpox if they have close contact with a person who has shingles. However, you can not catch shingles itself from someone else. Shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus which has been dormant (staying quiet) in your body ever since you had chickenpox. So, you get shingles from your own chickenpox virus, not from someone else.'

Staying Safe with Shingles

Although shingles is contagious and can transmit the chicken pox virus to susceptible people, classic, localized shingles is not as contagious as chicken pox itself.

While like shingles, you can get chicken pox "by touching or breathing in the virus particles that come from chickenpox blisters," you can also likely get chicken pox "through tiny droplets from infected people that get into the air after they breathe or talk." The droplet spread doesn't happen with shingles though.

You typically have to have direct contact with the shingles blisters for it to be contagious.

That makes it much easier to avoid getting sick, which is important if your child is too young to get vaccinated and protected with a chicken pox vaccine.

The American Academy of Pediatrics even states that 'lesions that are covered appear to pose little risk to susceptible individuals.'

In general, if someone has shingles and can keep all of the zoster lesions well covered, then the children won't have direct contact with them and shouldn't be at much risk.

What To Know About The Contagiousness of Shingles

Of course, the best way to avoid getting chicken pox is to simply get vaccinated with the chicken pox vaccine.

Children get their first dose of chicken pox vaccine they are 12 to 15 months old. The second dose of the chickenpox vaccine can be given any time, as long as it is at least three months after the first dose, but it is typically given when kids are 4 to 6 years old, just before they start kindergarten.

Although you should still take steps to avoid contact with the shingles blisters, someone who has had chicken pox (natural immunity) or two doses of chicken pox vaccine should be well protected if they have to be around someone with shingles.

Other things to know about shingles being contagious include that:

  • If your child is unvaccinated (and at least 12 months old) or has only had one dose of chicken pox vaccine (and it has been three months since their last dose), getting vaccinated within 3 to 5 days of exposure to someone with shingles might decrease their risk of getting chicken pox (post-exposure vaccination).
  • Symptoms of breakthrough chicken pox - getting sick after being vaccinated, are usually much milder than natural chicken pox infections.
  • Although a shingles vaccine is also available, it is for people who are at least 60 years old to help prevent them from getting shingles.
  • What about the idea that the expanded use of chicken pox vaccine is causing a surge in shingles cases or a shingles epidemic? This is simply another anti-vaccine myth that is used to scare parents away from vaccinating their kids and protecting them against vaccine-preventable diseases. The trend in rising shingles cases in adults began before we started giving kids the chicken pox vaccine in the United States and the trend in rising shingles cases in adults exists in other countries that do not routinely give kids the chicken pox vaccine.

If your child is exposed to someone with shingles, whether or not they have been vaccinated, watch them for the development of chicken pox blisters over the next 10 to 21 days - the incubation period for chicken pox.


CDC. Preventing Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV) Transmission from Zoster in Healthcare Settings. Accessed May 2016.

DEYOUNG GR. Herpes Zoster Virus Vaccine (Zostavax) for the Prevention of Shingles. Am Fam Physician - June 15, 2007; 75(12); 1843-1844.

Feder HM Jr. Herpes zoster in otherwise healthy children. Pediatr Infect Dis J - 01-MAY-2004; 23(5): 451-7; quiz 458-60

Kliegman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed.

Long: Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 3rd ed.

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