Shingles is a painful rash that can affect people of all ages. The varicella-zoster virus is usually passed through direct contact with someone who has shingles, or by touching something that the person touched after they had been infected. Shingles typically appear as red patches on your skin and may burn, itch, tingle, or feel tender to the touch.
While it is not as common, droplet or airborne spread of vesicle fluid from disseminated shingles is possible, as varicella-zoster virus has been found in saliva and nasal secretions in individuals with chickenpox and shingles. In the case of oral shingles, coughing or sneezing with open blisters developing in the oral cavity can result in the transmission of the virus. The good news is you can take precautions against the airborne spread of the virus!
People who are currently suffering from shingles can employ the following measures to avoid spreading the virus to their loved ones:
- Lesions should be covered with loose clothing or non-stick dressing, or in cases where shingles are either disseminated or exposed, e.g., face, isolate in a single room until all lesions have crusted over. You should also avoid going to work.
- Avoid contact with the following people until the rash crusts: pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine; premature or low birth weight infants; and people with weakened immune systems, such as people receiving immunosuppressive medications or undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients, and people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
- Seek medical treatment as soon as possible so that the open blisters can heal quickly. The doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir to reduce the duration and severity of the infection or topical ointments for relieving shingles that typically contain topical acyclovir, lidocaine, and/or capsaicin. This is most effective when started within 72 hours of the onset of the blisters.
- If you have oral shingles, a face mask may be helpful to catch aerosols and droplets when you cough or sneeze. However, it would help if you also took care to dispose of the face mask so that others do not contact the contaminated face mask. Wash your hands often as this often comes into contact with the aerosols or droplets.
For others who may be around the shingles patient or have yet to encounter a shingles patient:
- Stay away from people who are in the infectious stage of the disease. Keep your hands clean, and avoid touching any blisters or sores you might have on your skin as you may inoculate the viral particles you have picked up from the infected environment.
- Consider getting vaccinated, especially if you have never had chickenpox before. Shingles can be prevented with a DNA vaccine and is recommended for all adults 50 and over. Those who have had a previous bout of shingles can be vaccinated as well. Although you may still get shingles despite getting vaccinated, being vaccinated will reduce the course and severity of the disease and reduce your risk of postherpetic neuralgia.
In conclusion, both the shingles patient and the community can take precautions against the airborne transmission of vesicle fluid from disseminated shingles.
While they are in the infectious period, the shingles patient should cover their open lesions if possible and avoid contact with others, especially pregnant women or people with weaker immune systems such as HIV patients or patients undergoing chemotherapy. They should also seek out treatment as quickly as possible.
The community should also stay away from the shingles patient and consider getting vaccinated to reduce risk and transmission.
For more information on precautions to take against airborne shingles, discuss with your local general practitioner.