My partner and I have both been living with herpes for a few years. We thought we were pretty knowledgeable about it, but now we’re a bit confused. Recently, she was diagnosed with shingles and prescribed acyclovir to treat it. The doctor mentioned that this was a “herpes family” virus. Is shingles caused by the herpes virus? Does this mean that I may get it at some point? Can I get it from her?
These are questions we hear quite a bit at the Herpes Resource Center. The virus that causes herpes and the virus that causes shingles are not the same, but in the same viral “family.” The herpes simplex viruses (HSV-1 and HSV-2) that cause oral and genital herpes are related to the viruses that cause chicken pox and shingles.
It’s the virus varicella-zoster virus that causes chicken pox. After one has had chicken pox, this virus stays in the body and remains dormant for many years. Anyone who has ever had chickenpox may develop shingles at a later stage in life. As you may already know, shingles most commonly occurs in people over 50 and the likelihood increases with age.
The herpes simplex virus does not cause any reactivation later in life like that of herpes zoster. In fact, many people report that their HSV-1 and HSV-2 simplex outbreaks actually become less severe with time.
Another confusing aspect is that doctors sometimes treat zoster patients with the same medicines they use to suppress HSV-1 and HSV-2 outbreaks. Antiviral medications such as acyclovir or famciclovir are commonly used to prevent zoster from multiplying. These medications can shorten the period of the rash and decrease pain during the active stage of the illness just as they do for HSV-1 and HSV-2.
So if you’ve ever had chickenpox yourself, you may experience shingles at some point in your life. But you don’t have any worries about contracting it from your partner. Shingles is not contagious.