Working with shingles

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21 February 2020

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 within a couple of weeks, though 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.

It’s found dormant in nerve tissue near your spinal cord. And it can come back as shingles, even after a period of years has passed.

 

Should an employee with shingles come to work?

Ideally, anyone suffering an actual illness should stay at home. Presenteeism is a very real thing, and detrimental to the workplace culture.

But 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. It’s only through direct contact, but since chickenpox in adults and vulnerable people is deadly serious, it’s probably best to insist that employees take medical leave for 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.

 

Advice for employees

You might be asking yourself, 'can I go to work with shingles?'.

You can, but you probably shouldn’t.

You’ll probably feel pretty rotten, and you’ll have an itchy rash. You might be a bit crusty and oozy, and it’s possible that you may be a risk to others, especially if you work in close proximity to vulnerable people.

So, care workers, nurses, teachers etc: can you go to work if you have shingles? Definitely not. Office workers, construction workers etc: should you be working with shingles?  Maybe.

The shingles treatments in the UK are:

  • Antiviral medications
  • Antibiotics
  • Topical creams
  • Oral pain meds and steroid injections, in severe cases

Mostly, these won’t have an effect on an ability to work a desk job. But it’s up to you to exercise your judgment—and avoid presenteeism!

If you work as a nurse or in a care home, you likely don’t need to ask yourself ‘should I be working with shingles?’ the answer is obvious—lookout for the people you care for.

 

How long do you stay off work with shingles?

It's not unusual for employees to wonder how long to stay off work with shingles.

The major symptoms of shingles—the rash, itching, fever etc.—are usually cleared up in a couple of weeks.

So, really, you shouldn’t need much time off. But in severe cases, with complications like eye infections or severe postherpetic neuralgia (pain that continues after the virus has cleared up), you might need much longer.

Ask your doctor ‘how long should you stay off work with shingles’  to see what they think.

If you have any questions about shingles and work, beyond the advice here, please contact our expert advisors. You can call us on: 0844 892 2493.

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