Shingles is caused by a preventable viral infection. The term "shingles" is derived from the Latin/French word meaning belt/girdle. It is associated with several distinct symptoms, particularly the presence of a red banded rash on one side of the body, generally associated with blistering and itching.
The banding of the rash/blisters is due to the fact that shingles is typically associated with only one particular sensory nerve ending. It is common for healthy individuals to have shingles without symptoms as it is suppressed naturally by the immune system. Individuals with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to shingles infections.
Chicken pox and shingles are caused by the infection of the same virus, varicella-zoster. The initial infection with this particular virus creates the condition known as chicken pox. The body's immune system fights this virus, but commonly does not eliminate all traces of the virus. These traces can remain dormant, hidden to the biological immune system, for months or even years. The condition created by the re-activation of this dormant virus is known as shingles.
It is a common misunderstanding that the virus, varicella-zoster, is not contagious in the form of shingles. This is not true. Shingles is contagious! It is more difficult to become infected with the virus from an individual with shingles than chicken pox. Chicken pox is infectious upon introduction to the virus through respiration (air droplets dispersed by sneezing and/or coughing) or direct contact.
Chicken pox remains contagious until all rashes/blisters have healed. Shingles is only contagious through direct contact with fluids, particularly from disrupted blisters. Contact with the shingles virus may cause various reactions based on the individual. Individuals already having chicken pox may develop re-activation and suffer from shingles.
Individuals never having chicken pox may become infected. Those individuals most at risk include those who have never had the infection before and those unvaccinated.
Vaccinations exist for the prevention of chicken pox and shingles. The chicken pox vaccination has proven to be highly effective in the prevention of infection. The shingles vaccination has been identified and is effective in the suppression of further outbreaks and an overall decrease in the severity of further outbreaks.
Shingles can also be prevented by avoiding individuals with chicken pox and current shingles outbreaks. If you are an individual that works in an environment that requires consistent interaction with various other individuals on a daily basis, the vaccination is typically suggested as a strong deterrent of infection.