Shingles is caused by a type of herpes virus, called varicella zoster, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After someone has chickenpox, the virus can lie dormant in the body's nervous system for years before reactivating as shingles. According to a November 2002 article in "American Family Physician," about 25 percent of shingles outbreaks occur in or around the eye, a condition called herpes zoster ophthalmicus. Knowing early signs and symptoms of eye shingles is important because treatment during the first stages can lessen pain and prevent vision loss.
Flulike Symptoms and Pain
In many cases, eye shingles start by causing flulike symptoms, including fever, body aches, chills, headaches and fatigue. Often these symptoms are followed by pain on 1 side of the head or in 1 eye before any sign of a rash appears. The pain is often described as a burning or tingling sensation at first, followed by mild to severe pain. Pain follows a branch of the trigeminal nerve, which runs from the lower jaw to the forehead.
Before a shingles outbreak involves the eye, a red skin rash may form on 1 side of the head, eyelids or scalp. The rash looks like a cluster of blisters, which ooze clear fluid before eventually crusting over. A shingles rash may alternate between feeling itchy and painful. You can have shingles in they eye without developing a skin rash, but having the rash allows doctors to diagnose the problem without further testing.
Shingles of the eye can cause different symptoms that vary in severity. Symptoms are in 1 eye only and can include pain, blurry vision, redness or uveitis, which is an inflammation of the drainage structures of the eye. Inflammation can also develop in the interior surface of the eye, the retina. Both of these conditions can result in vision loss.
Early Treatment for Shingles
It is important to see your doctor if you have symptoms of eye shingles. Oral and topical medicines can treat the symptoms. Therapy works best if started within 48 to 72 hours of developing a shingles skin rash. Without treatment, people with eye shingles can develop scarring in the eye that may result in vision loss.
- American Family Physician: Evaluation and Management of Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus
- Review of Optometry: An Overview of Ocular Herpetic Disease
- Western Journal of Emergency Medicine: Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus
- Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society: Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus: Report of Cases and a Review of the Literature
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Trigeminal Neuralgia Fact Sheet