Is Shingles Airborne? Precautions and Transmission Details

Apocalyptic movies like Contagion, I Am Legend, and The Stand portray airborne diseases like unmanageable tyrants against the human race. While they have some storylines based in fact, the reality of communicable diseases isn’t as dire. As a society, we have developed vaccines and hygienes practices that mostly protect us from widespread pandemics that have plagued the earth historically.

But that doesn’t mean we are totally in the clear. Anti-vaxors and evolving microbes could put humans in an unsafe position again. It is up to individuals and healthcare institutions to empower themselves with knowledge and implement safety precautions.

Is Shingles Spread Airborne or by Contact?

Viruses are tricky menaces that jump from host to host in a variety of ways. The herpes zoster virus that causes chickenpox and shingles is no exception, but is shingles spread airborne or by contact?

To answer that question, we have to clarify a few facts. The HSV virus is contagious, but there are parameters. It is only spread by direct contact of bodily fluids. This means a droplet of blood, fluid from the blisters, or less commonly saliva. The distinction comes between spreading chickenpox or shingles. If a person who has never contracted HSV before comes into contact with fluid from an infected shingles patient, they can contract chickenpox.

However, shingles is not technically contagious itself. It is only possible to exhibit shingles if you have previously been infected with herpes zoster earlier in life. Shingles is the resurgence of the dormant virus into a novel condition.

Shingles Airborne Precautions for Diseases

While shingles isn’t spread through the air, some diseases can be. The presence of shingles rash is evidence that the immune system is weakened and therefore vulnerable to attacks from other infections. Airborne diseases are particularly scary because they the hardest communicable illnesses to contain. The common cold, influenza, mumps, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and diphtheria are all transmittable through pathogenic microbes discharged from an infected person through coughing, sneezing, breathing, or laughing. You still need to be fairly close proximity to pick up germs, but it can spread through communities quickly.

With a compromised immune system, a person with shingles will have difficulty overcoming even the common cold. More threatening diseases like tuberculosis and diphtheria could be deadly. In order to prevent serious complications, you can take the following shingles airborne precautions:

  • As explained by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, limiting contact is number one in prevention.
  • Stay home from work or school if sick
  • Wear a mask
  • Wash hands
  • Disinfect public surfaces like handles, doorknobs, railings, countertops, etc.
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow instead of your hands

Airborne Transmission of Shingles Virus

While some scientific sources classify chickenpox as an airborne disease, the virus predominately spreads through close personal contact.

Shingles is more of a cry for help from the body failing to fight off a constant companion that usually lies dormant. Therefore, airborne transmission of the shingles virus is an urban legend you can put to rest.

CDC Recommendations for Hospital Precautions for Contagious Diseases

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides information to the public on protecting their health from contagious diseases. They also set guidelines for healthcare providers in managing outbreaks. The organization separates its recommendations into Standard Precautions and Transmission-Based Precautions.

Standard Precautions are a broad-based approach to managing the scope of infection in all patients. It includes this advice:

  • Obey hand hygiene
  • Follow respiratory and cough etiquette principles
  • Use personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Clean and disinfect environment appropriately
  • Handle laundry and textiles carefully
  • Wear a surgical mask when performing lumbar injections
  • Follow the protocol for handling sharps and needles

Transmission-Based Precautions apply to situations with a known infected patient of a highly contagious disease and include:

  • Practice patient placement properly. Isolate if needed in a single room or cubicle
  • Wear mask, gloves, and gown
  • Use disposable or dedicated items when possible (only use blood pressure cuff on the infected patient, etc.)
  • Limit transport of patients
  • Disinfect rooms daily

Should Shingles Patients Be Put in Isolation?

If the only diagnosis is a disease spread by direct contact, should the infected individual be put in isolation? For shingles, isolation isn’t necessary unless the disease has caused them to be extremely unprotected against more serious afflictions.

The CDC rates isolation necessity with a Categorization Scheme for Recommendations that looks like this:

  • Category IA: Strongly recommended for isolation based on evidence from clinical, experimental, or epidemiologic tests.
  • Category IB: Strongly advised to isolate based on hard studies and theoretical rationale.
  • Category IC: Mandated by federal or state regulations for isolation.
  • Category II: Suggested for implementation based on tests results and/or theoretical evidence.

Self-imposed isolation is recommended for shingles outbreak during the first 48 hours of blisters appearing. During this time, the fluid could infect a child or immune-compromised person that has not been introduced to the virus. No quarantine is necessary, but it is advised to remain at home to rest and recover. This will also limit interactions with additional airborne and contact contagions that could compound the sickness and extend the duration during this exposure time.



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