Herpes zoster, commonly called shingles, is caused by the varicella-zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox. After the chickenpox subsides, the virus lies dormant in the body.
When the viral antibodies that had been dormant begin to move along nerve pathways, they come to life and initiate a reaction along those pathways. It’s common to hear of people getting shingles on their body—usually appearing on only one side of the body and often the trunk—but shingles can also travel the nerve pathways to the neck, face, or forehead, even the eyes.
“When shingles move along the nerves to the face, the sensation begins with intermittent pain and feels like pinpricks on the face,” said Dr. Joseph Schneiderhan, optometrist at Glenwood Family Eye Center. “It changes to a burning feeling and causes a rash or redness on the skin, then the vesicles erupt with itching, burning pain.”
When it spreads to the eye (herpes zoster ophthalmicus or herpes zoster), the vesicles can break and affect the eye, creating an ulcer. This then becomes an active virus on the front of the eye, which can cause scarring or even penetrate into the outer layers of tissue.
Treatment for Shingles in the Eye
“When it shows up on the body or the face, shingles are treated with oral medication,” said Dr. Schneiderhan. “If it appears on the face, but doesn’t appear to be spreading to the eye, we watch it. When there is a high risk of getting into the eye, then we begin treating the affected eye with anti-viral drops and closely monitor the eye.”
Treatment for herpes zoster is generally prescribed for seven days to two weeks. Left untreated, it can lead to scarring of the eye, loss of vision, or other long-term conditions. While rare, the retina can be affected, there can be different presentations on the front of the eye, or it can even cause inflammation on the inner layers of the cornea.
If you or a family member get shingles on the face or near the eyes, contact our team for treatment.