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Shingles in the Eye

Shingles in the eye, also known as herpes zoster ophthalmicus, is an infection that occurs due to reactivation of the varicella zoster virus that lies dormant in the nerve cells. It is a serious medical condition that needs prompt attention and treatment.
Dhanya Joy
Last Updated: Feb 7, 2018
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Shingles is characterized by a painful rash that may occur on the body as a reaction from a dormant chickenpox virus. Once a person contracts chickenpox after being exposed to varicella zoster, this virus lies in an inactive form in the nerve roots.
If it flares up, it travels along the nerve, resulting in a burning sensation, itching, and a blistered rash.
If the virus travels along the trigeminal nerve, one would suffer from ophthalmic shingles or shingles in the eye. Remember, only those who have previously suffered from chickenpox can develop this condition.
Another virus, the herpes simplex type 1, or HSV1 can also cause shingles in the eye. It is the very virus that causes cold sores on the mouth. When it affects the eye, it results in an infection of the cornea, called herpes simplex keratitis.
Symptoms of Shingles in the Eye
Shingles are quite painful, as they affect the sensory nerves in the body. The presence of a rash on the area surrounding the eye distinguishes shingles from other eye ailments. The symptoms of shingles are as follows -
  • Pain in the affected side of the face
  • Redness in the eye, eyelids, and surrounding areas
  • Blistered rash on the affected area which may spread as far as the tip of the nose
  • Swelling of the cornea
  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision in the affected eye
  • A pricking sensation in the eye
  • Discharge from the eye
The virus may affect various parts of the eye including the eyelid, cornea, iris, retina, and the optic nerve. Consult the doctor at the earliest if you notice these symptoms, as a delay in treatment may cause substantial damage to your eye.
Are Shingles Contagious?
Shingles are caused by a virus, which makes them contagious. However, they are caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, so if a person has suffered from this disease previously, he/she develops an immunity to it. The infection spreads through contact with raw blisters, so patients are refrained from going to public places. People (pregnant women, in particular) who have not had chickenpox in their childhood are susceptible to shingles.
What Causes Shingles?
The varicella zoster virus, along with the herpes simplex type 1 can be present in the body of an adult if he/she has suffered from chickenpox previously. In most cases, the presence of this virus causes no harm, and it may lie dormant for several years. However, during times of duress, the immune system may take a beating, causing the dormant virus to become active.
Once this happens, it causes an inflammation along the path of the affected nerve. When the virus affects the ophthalmic branch of trigeminal nerve, which is a sensory facial nerve, one may experience itching, pain and a burning sensation on the forehead, eye, nose or cheek. Since the trigeminal nerve dermatome extends across the eye, one could suffer from eye problems if this dermatome is affected.
Statistics tell us that 10-20% of the people diagnosed with shingles are likely to develop ophthalmic shingles. People above the age of 50 are susceptible to developing this condition.
Treatment for Shingles
Any person suffering from shingles in the eye should seek treatment from an ophthalmologist at the earliest. Your doctor will prescribe antiviral and anti-inflammatory medication.
Various methods may be employed to bring relief from the persistent pain. These may include all or some of the following -
  • Topical applications with steroid-antibiotic combination to heal the blisters
  • Medicated eye drops for alleviating pain and redness
  • Painkiller to get relief from pain
The importance of timely diagnosis followed by treatment cannot be undermined. It may also lower the risk of postherpetic neuralgia, which is characterized by pain and sensitivity that is felt along the affected dermatome, even after the visible signs of the viral infection disappear.
Since it occurs due to reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox, getting vaccinated for chickenpox can help in preventing shingles.
A person with a compromised immune system becomes susceptible to various diseases, including shingles. Therefore, it is necessary to follow a healthy diet and take steps to strengthen the immune system. Stress may act as a trigger, so it is important to stay relaxed and stress-free. Cutting down on smoking and consumption of alcohol is also recommended.
Symptoms associated with shingles in the eye must be treated at the earliest. If left untreated, it can lead to serious complications that could even lead to blindness.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.