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NEW YORK: Shingles, the painful and blistery rash that arises when the chickenpox virus becomes reactivated, can be contagious, but only for people who are not already immune to chickenpox.
Those who have never had chickenpox or been vaccinated against it are at risk for developing chickenpox – not shingles – if they come in contact with fluid from the blisters of a shingles patient.
According to Dr. Pritish K. Tosh, an infectious disease specialist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the blisters are contagious until they crust over, "and people should keep them covered".
He noted that it’s important to “make sure people who are at risk not come in contact with these lesions”. Those at risk include anyone who has never had chickenpox or has not yet been vaccinated.
Special caution should be taken with pregnant women or those with a compromised immune system, who may not know whether they are immune to the disease.
Chickenpox is transmitted through contact with an infected person’s respiratory droplets or their lesions, which contain the varicella zoster virus. Though it has historically been a children’s disease, many children today do not develop chickenpox because they are vaccinated against it.
Shingles is caused by the same varicella zoster virus. After patients recover from chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in their nerve cells, where it is typically kept in check by the immune system for decades.
But anyone who has already had chickenpox is at risk for developing shingles later in life when the virus becomes active again as a result of age, stress or a weakened immune system. The painful inflammation and rash with blisters often forms in a band across the skin.
People who have been vaccinated against chickenpox may also get shingles, but it is believed to be less common than in those who had the natural disease.
One way to reduce your chances of getting shingles is to get vaccinated. A new vaccine called Shingrix protects over 90 percent of people 50 and over.
By Roni Caryn Rabin © The New York Times