Q: If my wife has shingles, can I catch it? What if I never had chickenpox?
A: No, you can’t catch shingles from anybody. Shingles, characterized by a painful blistering rash on one side of the body (usually the torso), is caused by the same herpes virus, varicella-zoster, that causes chickenpox. After you have that childhood disease, the virus stays dormant in your body and can reemerge decades later to cause shingles.
If you’ve never had chickenpox, you can catch that from someone with shingles. However, almost all older adults have had chickenpox, even if they don’t remember. Chickenpox itself is very contagious, but the virus is less easily transmitted from shingles patients. Thus, people who’ve never had chickenpox or the vaccine for it usually won’t contract chickenpox if they’re exposed to shingles.
Still, if someone who has never had chickenpox or the vaccine is planning to visit, ask him/her to wait until the contagious stage has passed (when the rash crusts over). And do not expose a pregnant woman who has never had chickenpox (or the vaccine) to either chickenpox or shingles, since the virus can harm the fetus. If she has had chickenpox or has been vaccinated, there’s no danger.
Don’t forget: The shingles vaccine, approved for people 50 and over, will prevent about half of all cases and greatly reduce the severity and duration of shingles if it does occur. You can get the vaccine even if you never had chickenpox; it will protect you from both chickenpox and shingles.