What is herpes zoster?

Herpes zoster, also called shingles, is a disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the virus that causes chickenpox. Sometimes, many years after you have had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus becomes active again and causes shingles.

Shingles is an infection that produces fluid-filled blisters on the skin, often near certain nerves. It may spread to the eyes.

What are herpes zoster eye infections?

If the varicella-zoster virus spreads to nerves in your head, your face, eyes, and nose may be affected. The virus can cause several problems, including:

  • Blisters on or inside your eyelids
  • Damage to your cornea (the clear dome on the front of the eye)
  • Uveitis (inflammation to eye tissues behind the cornea)
  • Glaucoma (increased pressure inside the eye)
  • Cataracts.

How do they occur?

The first time you are exposed to the varicella-zoster virus, you usually develop chickenpox. After you recover, the virus stays in your body in a weak form. Usually your body’s immune system is strong enough to keep the virus from causing any problems. However, if your body’s immune system becomes weak, the virus may cause blisters on your skin and problems in your eyes.

Your body’s immune system may be weakened by:

  • Diseases such as AIDS or Hodgkin’s disease
  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Fatigue
  • Poor nutrition
  • Chemotherapy or radiation
  • Certain medicines.

Sometimes problems from herpes zoster occur for no known reason.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of herpes zoster eye infections include:

  • Fluid-filled blisters on or inside your eyelids or elsewhere on your face swollen eyelids
  • Eye pain
  • Watery eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision.

Often blisters are present on only one side of the face.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your medical history and symptoms. Your doctor will also examine your skin and eyes. The blisters usually occur in a certain pattern near affected nerves. If necessary, scrapings from the blisters can be tested in a lab to determine if the virus is present.

How is it treated?

Several medicines are helpful in treating herpes zoster eye infections.

  • Acyclovir is an antiviral medicine that greatly limits the effects of the virus and helps reduce complications. This medicine is most effective when started as soon as the first symptoms appear.
  • Steroids can sometimes be used to reduce eye inflammation.
  • Antibiotics prevent infection from other organisms that may get in your eyes while you have herpes zoster.
  • Painkillers (such as acetaminophen) and lubricating eye drops may lessen your pain.
  • Medicines for glaucoma help keep the pressure in your eye at normal levels.

How long will the effects last?

Blisters dry up and form scabs about 5 days after they appear. You may develop permanent scars and longstanding pain, numbness, or skin discoloration. If your cornea is affected, it can become permanently scarred. Early treatment with acyclovir lessens the effects of the varicella-zoster virus and can sometimes prevent serious complications.

Shingles can be recurring problem.

Are herpes zoster eye infections contagious?

A person with shingles can transmit chickenpox to a person who has never been exposed to the varicella-zoster virus. The virus is spread by contact with the blister fluid. You are no longer contagious after the blisters dry up and form scabs, which is about 5 days after they first appear.

What can I do to help prevent herpes zoster eye infections?

If you have had chickenpox, you have the inactive varicella-zoster virus in your body. To keep it from becoming active, maintain general good health to keep your immune system strong.

Sometimes attacks of shingles occur for no apparent reason and cannot be prevented.

Early diagnosis and treatment can help greatly in reducing serious complications from herpes zoster eye infections.

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