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Eye Health Library / Eye Exam & Diagnoses
Shingles is a viral infection that affects many parts of the body. This particular virus is called the herpes varicella-zoster. The varicella portion of the virus causes chickenpox. After the chickenpox has cleared, the virus becomes dormant in specific nerve roots. If this virus is reactivated later in life it is called shingles. Shingles is only contagious to people who have never had chickenpox. A reduction in one’s immunity can cause such a reactivation. Such reduction in immunity may include aging, UV exposure, stress, organ transplantation, etc.
Shingles usually causes a vesicular skin rash on one side of the body. This outbreak is more painful and itchy than that of chickenpox. The face, eyelids, scalp, tip of the nose, ears, back and abdomen are commonly affected. Before the rash begins, there is usually a prodromal stage of general malaise, fever, chills and pain. The skin rash presents as small fluid-filled blisters that take around five days to break open and up to four weeks to heal. Approximately 20 per cent of those affected by shingles experience post-herpetic neuralgia. This stage is characterized by pain that continues for months or even years after the initial blisters heal.
The symptoms of an ocular shingles infection can mimic those of many other eye conditions. The eye can be red, inflamed, blurred or feel irritated. It is important, if you are experiencing these symptoms, or have been previously diagnosed with shingles on your face, that you visit your doctor of optometry. Corneal ulcers may develop during a shingles infection that could potentially lead to scars that can cause permanent vision loss. If your family physician suspects you suffer from shingles, it is imperative to seek the care of your local doctor of optometry to rule out any eye involvement.
Herpes zoster or shingles is typically treated with oral antiviral medications. Initiating treatment as soon as possible reduces the risk of complications from shingles. Topical creams can help alleviate the discomfort from the skin rash. If the eye is affected, anti-inflammatory drops may also be used. Treatment, however, does not kill the virus, but rather forces the virus into dormancy again. Reactivation of shingles can occur at any time in the future.