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I was recently diagnosed with shingles, I've done everything I've been advised to do by a doctor to minimize contact at work.

Due to where the shingles has developed doctor has advised me I can return to work as long as the area is covered. The area is on my back going around to my stomach. Shingles is incredibly painful and I'm on a high mg of anti-viral drugs.

When I returned to work the section leader plastered herself against the wall as if I had a highly contagious disease making me feel incredibly embarrassed in front of other colleagues, then informed me that another colleague was pregnant.

Doctors and pharmacist have told me there's no possibility to ever pass shingles on. Only chicken pox if a person hasn't had it before in their life. And they would have to physically touch me or this virus to be on my hands but as I keep my hands clean and I don't touch the affected area there's little to no chance of infection to anyone else.

This behaviour has made me feel humiliated in front of others. The shingles have been caused by stress and the behaviour of my senior work colleagues is having a detrimental affect on my stress levels.

I don't know what to do

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7 Answers 7

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Put simply: you should not have returned to work without first discussing it with your employer. You don't know that everyone in the office has in fact had chicken pox, or if anyone in your office is immuno-compromised for other reasons, or all sorts of other things. "Little to no chance of infection to anyone else" is not a decision you get to make on behalf of others.

Explain your situation to your manager or HR as appropriate and do what they say.

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    I don't disagree with this answer (+1 from me) but I do want to point out here that OP specified that the doctor themselves cleared them to go into the office ("doctor has advised me I can return to work as long as the area is covered") and doctors are an authoritative source here if your concern is one of contagiousness and effect on others. If the doctor did not explain any caveats like immuno-compromised people, pregnant people, ... then it's reasonable for OP to assume that there's no caveats that they should be responsible for checking. If anyone whiffed here, it's the doctor IMO.
    – Flater
    Apr 19 at 0:33
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    @Flater I would agree, IF the doctor was told about the workplace environment etc and was given the opportunity to write a medical report setting out the assumptions made and advice given.
    – fabspro
    Apr 19 at 5:32
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    I strongly disagree with this answer. The employer has no business with what medical conditions an employee has or does not have. It's entirely up to the doctor to clear or not clear a patient to go to work. If there is a chance of infecting someone with a lower immune system, then it's up to the doc to not clear them.
    – Opifex
    Apr 19 at 10:19
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    +1, but I agree with @Opifex too. This might be location (jurisdiction) dependent too, but where I live the way I would to frame OP's situation wouldn't be "the doctor said I can return to work". Rather, it would be along the lines "the doctor refused to issue a medical leave document", meaning OP must return to his normal duties. And in that case, if the employer wants me to stay home - they can release me from the obligation of performing work for a certain time (paid time, of course). I'm not using my own paid time off for this.
    – Neo
    Apr 19 at 10:41
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    @Opifex the employer has a huge interest in what medical conditions an employee has. The employer has a legal obligation to ensure a safe workplace, for all employees including the sick/injured one and the others who could be put at risk. The doctor does not have the exclusive right to clear a patient to return - the employer should also be satisfied and may draw on others e.g. occupational therapists, to ensure a safe return to work.
    – fabspro
    Apr 20 at 6:33
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Just to make this abundantly clear to you: you decided, that going into public and risking other pregnants people's unborn life is your decision to make and that people that are uncomfortable with danger to their health or their babies embarass you? That you are somehow the victim here?

First, you need to fire that shamanic excuse for a doctor you have. With shingles, you belong at home resting, with anti-virals, pain killers and above all... rest. You are sick. That is not your fault. Shingles can develop for multiple reasons and none of them are anybodies fault. But you are treated like a serf by your medical system. You should be a patient, to be cured, not a work mule to be sent back in pain to press the last bits of performance out of you before you succumb.

You do not belong at any physical workplace. Because you are not safe for others. And because you are not proprely recovering for yourself.

Doctors and pharmacist have told me there's no possibility to ever pass shingles on.

That is a blatant lie. Good lord, where in the world are you, is there not a single educated professional where you live? Yes, you cannot pass on shingles directly. You can pass on chicken pox instead, the underlying thing. Yes, it would be incredible hard to pass on chicken pox to a healthy adult who had had chicken pox. Do you know the health history of your coworkers? Do you know if any of them are pregnant? Maybe they are sick themselves and need to take imuno suppresants? If you think shingles in your current form are bad, imagine it 20x times worse (in surface affected alone) and that is what you are threatening people with, that have health conditions you may not know about, because it is none of your business.

Just to make this clear, that excruciating pain you are having now, that is the normal form of shingles. That is by far not the worst. And you don't know if others at your workplace are prone to even worse than you are suffering from right now. I mean you probably agree that even what you have now is not worth having.


So fire that sorry excuse for a doctor you are having. Your problem is not embarrassment at work. Your problem is that you are not properly treated for a painful disease and your mistreatment that I would call malpractice is harmful to you and harmful to others around you.

Shingles, if it hits the right person, will not just cause pain for a few weeks. It will grant you a multi-week hospital stay and permanent nerve damage. Just imagine you are giving the pain you are having now to some poor coworker who happens to be sick with something else, for the rest of their life. Do you think that the problem is your embarrassment over their fear?

So please, find an actual, college educated individual that will provide you with good medical advice and a way to feel better soon. That will automatically take care of your colleagues fear, because you should not be at work in the first place. Not unless you are working in a North Korean rice paddy.

And wherever you are in the world, it might be worth voting for a party that advocates better healthcare.


Okay, one last bit in this ranty post: I wrote a lot about medicine and I would not know half of it if I didn't know someone who suffers from this. So how would you know whether I am right? I am just an unknown guy from the internet, right? Just Google shingles. Basic information. One contributing factor to shingles is stress. Because stress reduces your immune systems ability to combat the virus that is behind this. Do you think your doctor did a good job in having your stress levels reduced? Even taking your coworkers reaction out of the picture. How did you feel going to work? Less stressed? That is an easy thing you should be able to judge all by yourself, no medical education needed.

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    – Kilisi
    Apr 20 at 2:51
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    You might want to tone this down a little. Allowing patients with HZ infections to return to work seems to be pretty standard practice. See cdc.gov/chickenpox/outbreaks/manual.html: "Immunocompetent persons with HZ can remain at school as long as the lesions can be completely covered."
    – terdon
    Apr 21 at 13:30
  • @terdon it probably depends on the country. In France the official message is "eviction from the professional environment is not compulsory". This can be interpreted in various ways, one of them being "don't go if can". It is mostly there to protect the workers, but if this was me I would not go given the risk (or would take lots of measures). Again, it depends on the person but still.
    – WoJ
    Apr 21 at 19:23
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    @WoJ sure, I don't doubt that not going is a good option if available. This answer, however, is a borderline rant attacking a doctor who may well have done nothing wrong and also the OP who did nothing worse than follow doctor's orders.
    – terdon
    Apr 21 at 21:37
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The way I see it. You have two options:

Option 1: You could take your supervisor aside and say something like: "Listen. If you're concerned about my shingles and want me to take some extra precautions, please take me aside and speak to me privately, I did not appreciate the way you brought this up in front of others."

Option 2: You could make a similar request, but via email. Documenting such an incident via email would give you some ammunition in the future. But you'll need to think long and hard if you decide to take that route on a first offense.

Personally, I would go with Option 1, and I would only go with Option 2 (or further) if he kept on doing it again (despite my ongoing request not to).

Furthermore, when discussing this matter, I would stick to "My doctor and my pharmacist both told me it was ok to start working again." I would avoid making absolute universal claims such as "never", or "no one", etc. Avoiding universal quantifiers makes it less likely that they'll argue with you. Also, if your supervisor requests that you make reasonable accommodations for your pregnant co-worker, I would probably go along with those requests assuming those accommodations are reasonable.

With that said, I don't have a good definition for what might be "reasonable", so if your supervisor makes such a request and you don't know if it's reasonable or not, please update your question and let us know how much of an impact such a request would have on you.

In addition to that, the CDC says to avoid contact with "Pregnant women who never had chickenpox or chickenpox vaccine" source, so it's a bit premature to automatically assume that the pregnant coworker never had chickenpox or was never vaccinated. In the United States, only 1 out of 10 pregnant women fall in that category in the first place.

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    I always try to avoid universal quantifiers. Apr 20 at 13:19
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    @Happy: Wouldn't that be "I usually try to avoid universal quantifiers"? Apr 20 at 23:06
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    @AlexanderThe1st Only the Sith deal in absolutes... said the Jedi. Apr 20 at 23:24
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    1 in 10 is a lot more risk than I'd consider safe. We've barricaded in our homes for a year over 1 in 100 covid risks.
    – Therac
    Apr 21 at 15:32
  • @Therac, Chicken pox is not airborne like Covid, so the risks are not equivalent, but I agree. If I were the pregnant woman, I would ask my doctor for a blood test to see if I was immune to chicken pox or not. And then, I would assess the risks pragmatically, in concert with my own medical doctor. And if I were the supervisor, I would look for other ways to mitigate the risks: (Work From Home policy if possible, additional PTO, change in sitting arrangements, etc.). Apr 22 at 1:30
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It's not safe for an expecting mother or a new mother to be in the same office as a person infected with the varicella virus.

Varicella is airborne - you don't have to touch the infected person to get it. Unlike coronavirus, it can't be effectively stopped by masks, because the blisters also produce aerosol with a high viral load, which easily transmits it due to varicella's low infective dose, with a R0 of 5.6 (per one study in Korea).

In your case, since this is shingles/HZ, the viral load is much lower than for a full chickenpox/varicella infection, but the risk, if small, is still present.

The disease if contracted is a low risk for children and vaccinated adults, but up to 30% lethal to fetuses and newborns, and causes a similar rate of birth defects. You could leave your colleague's child crippled for life.

It's easy to assume that "everyone had chickenpox as a child, so it's no problem". That's not the case. First, we live in a diverse world, not every country has mass varicella vaccination, and some that do have anti-vaxers. Second, immunity is not absolute: a high dose of the pathogen, temporary immune compromise, or loss of antibodies over time can cause a breakthrough infection even in immune individuals. Third, you don't have to read journals to infer from your own sickness that adults can and do suffer from it.

Unfortunately, your doctor's advice did not take these risks into account. The practice of recalling sick, but "not too sick to work" people made sense in the industrial age, when the need for more steel, tanks and planes outweighed the risks to your colleagues. But things have changed - it's now normal for expecting or new mothers to come to work, which is quite different from fellow factory workmen.

By entering the office with this disease, you're exposing your company to potential liability if it results in a disability in your pregnant colleague's child. Most of that liability will be on the medical practitioners involved, but courts can spread blame in civil cases, and some of it will be on the company. It would've been unprofessional on part of your supervisor not to consider these risks and have you work in the office.

What to do: Stay home. With a condition that's still physically painful, you should be eligible for medical leave. If that's denied, a remote work accommodation should be pretty standard. You did say "office", so hopefully it's not factory work that requires physical presence.

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    Please read your links more carefully. Your claim about airborne transmission is supported by an article discussing varicela, not herpes zoster/shingles. Yes, they are caused by the same virus, but they are different manifestations and have different methods of transmission. For instance, see here: "Current guidelines recommend standard precautions for hospitalized patients with localized HZ" and "patients with HZ are generally allowed to return to group settings such as work or school if the skin lesions can be covered".
    – terdon
    Apr 21 at 13:07
  • @terdon CDC specifically calls out airborne transmission for chickenpox. Even your link doesn't state it's a safe practice - just that it's common. The OP's description matches varicella more than HZ, but of course we don't know from so far away. It IS mostly safe enough to work with a covered infection, but it's not safe to allow pregnant women into the same workplace. One of them should stay at home.
    – Therac
    Apr 21 at 13:39
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    No, the OP's description is very specific to thoraco-lumbar herpes zoster, they explicitly tell us they have shingles, which is HZ, and not chickenpox and the lesions are localized to their back. This is very classic herpes zoster. Chickenpox is a different disease, just caused by the same virus. It has a significantly different transmission profile.
    – terdon
    Apr 21 at 13:43
  • @terdon If it's HZ, the risk is lower. But the virus is the same, and HZ can cause varicella, it's just less contagious. In the OP's case (office work that can probably be done remotely, and at-risk people present at the office), sending them home is quite reasonable. For an oil rig it wouldn't be.
    – Therac
    Apr 21 at 14:04
  • I am not saying that sending them home would be unreasonable. I am simply pointing out that most of what this answer is saying is not relevant to HZ as it is coming from sources discussing varicella. And your point about R0 is also misleading since that not only came from a paper discussing varicella but in the very same paper they make the point that R0 varies significantly across countries and that was a value specific to South Korea.
    – terdon
    Apr 21 at 14:13
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Regarding your section lead and stress levels, you should let this go. Any escalation on your part risks drawing further attention to your condition. Let this episode be forgotten. From now on, act casually, follow doctors' recommendations, and let her appear to be the oddball. Also, don't discuss your condition but to say, "I'm fine."

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    The cat has already left the barn, but you're right, people do eventually forget about things. If their life is not in danger. Apr 20 at 13:36
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Your response should have been to point out:

My doctor advised me to return to work, and that as long as I keep the area covered, I shouldn't be infecting anyone. I have been doing my best to avoid the possibility of passing the illness to anyone. However, I appreciate your concerns and I am open to any arrangements by the company so that you fee even safer.

Now after the incident, I would send that by email. Probably with the others in front of which that happened in Cc (due to the embarrassment part, alternatively, send only to the supervisor). Additionally, send another email to HR summarizing what happened and stating the same.


Now as of the situation:

First of all, you are not at fault here. Your doctor sent you back to the office, so you went back. Your doctor might be stupid not evaluating the risks correctly as Therac suggests, but that's not your fault either.

There are multiple types of arrangements for when employees get sick, depending on the country. But if the doctor says you are fit, you generally have to go back, even if you preferred not to. The company may provide greater flexibility such as letting you stay at home while paying you nevertheless as if you had been in the office, or letting you work from home. But that's up to the company. So, the correct procedure is to bring it up with HR along the concerns of your coworkers. If they let you WFH I think you will be better off, and your coworkers won't need to get worried about that as well. If HR states you must come to the office, it's not your fault either. Your section leader should try to convince HR that you should not be there, or that they relocated some people so you are further from coworkers that might have an higher risk.

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First of all if your employer disclosed your condition to your coworkers that was a big no no! It's called Heppa violation. You are contagious until they are dried up. Maybe your City's health department will have better answers for you than your doctor. I had this last year it's very painful, I personally do not know how you were able to return with still having a painful rash, your stronger than I was. I actually stayed in the master bed with bath by myself so I wouldn't infect anyone. Your doctor sounds incompetent and your supervisor is an ass. Good luck and feel better.

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    Did you mean HIPAA? (Assuming you're talking about the US.)
    – TooTea
    Apr 19 at 13:28
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    Not all revelations of medical conditions are HIPAA violations. It's uncool, but I don't think employees in the US are required to reveal diagnoses to their employers or coworkers, so assuming US jurisdiction, the asker apparently told coworkers not only that they are sick but that they have shingles, so it's possible that legally the asker has disclosed and therefore no longer has expectation of privacy for their disease. I don't know the law in much detail but I don't think it's clear from what we know that there's a HIPAA violation here. Apr 19 at 14:42
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    As someone who has read extensively on HIPAA, edited HIPAA compliance checklists for reputable organizations, and made HIPAA-compliant software, I can tell you that this is not a violation because the act is only active upon a healthcare organization/doctor/other provider, alongside the third parties that are linked with the patient's PHI, and other business associates (Well, there are a few other entities that come under HIPAA but they are irrelevant here) and not when the patient themselves disclose their medical information to someone and they decide to tell someone else. Apr 19 at 15:38
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    @ToddWilcox That is correct and looks to be exactly the case here. It's absurd to consider it a HIPAA violation as it's similar to disclosing your sickness to a friend or a relative and they deciding to disclose it to someone else. This has nothing to do with HIPAA as it summarily only applies to healthcare organizations/professionals and third parties related to them. Apr 19 at 15:39

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