Last reviewed 6 September 2021

Nicola Jagielski from Health Assured describes what shingles is, and advises on whether employees who have the infection should be working.

What is shingles?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a non-life threatening viral infection.

The main symptoms of shingles are a skin rash with blistering. Usually, this clears up within a couple of weeks, although in some extreme cases it can linger for years.

Other symptoms include:

  • pain, numbness and tingling in affected areas

  • sensitivity to contact

  • itching

  • bursting blisters that crust over

  • fatigue

  • sensitivity to light

  • headaches and fever.

For some people, especially the elderly or those with a weakened immune system, shingles can be a serious condition.

What causes shingles?

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox — in fact, after you've recovered from a bout of chickenpox, the virus remains in your body. You cannot catch shingles from someone with shingles or chickenpox, but you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles if you have not had chickenpox before.

It generally stays dormant in nerve tissue near your spinal cord but it can come back as shingles, even after a period of years has passed, usually when your immune system is lowered.

Should an employee with shingles come to work?

Ideally, anyone suffering an actual illness should stay at home.

Can an employee work with shingles? Technically, yes. The symptoms and signs generally aren't serious enough to stop the average office worker, if they grit their teeth and ignore the rash.

However, shingles can transmit chickenpox. Since chickenpox in adults and vulnerable people is deadly serious, especially for certain vulnerable people, you should ask the employee to work from home for a period if that's possible, or otherwise insist that they take medical leave. People such as care workers, nurses, teachers, etc should definitely not be going into work with shingles.

If someone is taking shingles sick leave, they shouldn't need a lot of time off. They can come back once they feel better in the event of a fever — but if they have a rash on exposed skin, they should really stay off work until this has crusted over. This can take around seven days, although it can take up to four weeks for the rash to heal completely.

What treatment is available for shingles?

The NHS recommends getting medical advice as soon as you suspect shingles. Relevant medicines work best if taken within three days of symptoms starting.

The shingles treatments in the UK are:

  • antiviral medications

  • antibiotics

  • topical creams

  • oral pain medications

  • steroid injections in severe cases.

Mostly, these won't have an effect on an ability to work a desk job.

How long should infected employees stay off work with shingles?

The major symptoms of shingles — the rash, itching, fever, etc — usually clear up in a couple of weeks. But in severe cases, with complications like eye infections or severe post herpetic neuralgia (pain that continues after the virus has cleared up), the employee might need longer.

It would be worth the employee asking their doctor for their recommendation.