Is it safe to be near someone with shingles when I'm pregnant?
If you're pregnant, should you stay away from someone who has shingles? Is it OK if you've had chickenpox? Our expert family GP explains the risks – to you and your baby-to-be – of close contact with shingles during your pregnancy
In a nutshell: It depends on whether you have had chickenpox or not. If you've had chickenpox, then you don't need to worry; if you haven't ever had chickenpox and you come into close contact with someone who has shingles, then you could catch chickenpox – and, if you do, there's a small risk of complications with your pregnancy.
How can I catch chickenpox from someone who has shingles?
Both chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus – the varicella-zoster virus. Shingles can only affect people who have previously had chickenpox.
How does that happen? Once you have had chickenpox, the virus lies dormat in your nervous stystem. Sometimes, the virus can then become reacticated and cause an infection of a nerve and the area of skin supplied by that nerve – leading to shingles.
If someone with shingles comes into close contact with you, and you have had chickenpox before, you'll have immunity to this virus and you won't catch chickenpox again. But if you have not had chickenpox before, you are at risk of catching chickenpox from someone with shingles.
So, can I catch shingles from being near someone who has shingles?
No, you can't catch shingles from someone who has shingles. You can only catch chickenpox – if you haven't had chickenpox before.
What if I've already had contact with someone with shingles?
If you haven't had chickenpox yourself, you should seek advice from your GP or midwife as soon as possible.
It's worth knowing that coming into contact with someone with shingles is lower risk than coming into contact with someone with chickenpox. That's because shingles is only spread by close contact with the blistery skin rash shingles causes, while chickenpox is also spread through respiratory transmission – by breathing it in. So the likelihood of catching chickenpox from someone with shingles is fairly low, especially if the rash is covered up by clothing. And remember: it only applies if you haven’t had chickenpox yourself.
When you contact your GP or your antenatal team, they may request a blood test to see if you are immune to chickenpox (you may have had chickenpox without necessarily realising it). Depending on the results and the level of contact you've had with the person with shingles, you may be offered post-exposure prophylaxis with antiviral medication, generally aciclovir. If these can't be given, then antibody treatment with varicella zoster immune globulin (VZIG) may be offered.
What if I do go on to get chickenpox? Is there a risk to my baby?
It depends on the stage of your pregnancy...
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- If you do get chickenpox during early pregnancy, there is a small risk of foetal varicella syndrome (FVS), which can affect your baby's skin, eyes, limbs, bladder and bowel or brain.
- If you get chickenpox later in pregnancy (between about 28 and 36 weeks), then generally the virus will stay in your baby's body but not cause symptoms. But, of course, it may cause your child to have shingles at a later date.
- If you catch chickenpox at the end of pregnancy (after 36 weeks), there is a chance that your baby will be infected and be born with chickenpox.
Catching chickenpox during pregnancy can also means an increased risk of complications affecting you, such as pneumonia.
If you are over 20 weeks pregnant and develop chickenpox, generally you will be offered an anti viral medication, called aciclovir. This may also be suggested if you get chickenpox at an earlier stage of pregnancy.
If your baby is born within a week of you developing the rash of chickenpox, or in the 1st week after birth, or your baby is exposed to chickenpox or shingles in the first week of life, then VZIG may be offered. If your baby then goes on to chickenpox, antiviral medication may be offered.
What if I get shingles? Is there a risk to my baby?
As I've explained above, anyone who has had chickenpox before can get shingles at some point. This means that it is possible to get shingles while you are pregnant. Generally, the condition is mild and there is no risk to your baby because you already have have antibodies to the varicella-zoster virus (from when you had chickenpox).
If you find the itching very uncomfortable, you may want to take paracetamol. And do contact your GP or midwife: anyone who develops a rash in pregnancy should get checked out by a healthcare professional.
About our expert Dr Philippa Kaye
Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.
Last reviewed: January 2023.
Pictures: Getty Images
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