How shingles can affect the eyes
You might be familiar with shingles – or what’s often referred to as the “adult” version of chickenpox. But did you know that sometimes shingles can affect the eyes?
What is shingles?
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. After a chickenpox infection, the virus remains dormant in the body and, if reactivated, comes back as shingles. While this most commonly happens after age 50, shingles can affect anyone with a previous chickenpox infection. Shingles is fairly common and affects about one in three Americans every year.
Unlike chickenpox, shingles itself is not contagious. However, you can pass the varicella-zoster virus on to someone who has never had it, thereby causing them to get chickenpox. For example, someone with shingles can infect a young child with chickenpox.
Shingles will usually last for two to four weeks, from the first signs (usually pain) until the blisters dry and the scabs clear up. While it’s possible to get shingles more than once, most people do not.
What causes shingles?
While we know that previous infection of the varicella-zoster virus is the cause of shingles, there does not seem to be a precise trigger for the reactivation of it. Since shingles usually affects people later in life, a natural decline in the immune system could be one reason the virus gets reactivated. This means that it’s possible that your immune system no longer recognizes the virus and therefore doesn’t know how to attack it, causing you to develop shingles.
Other causes could be certain underlying conditions that affect the immune system, such as HIV, cancer, or other auto-immune conditions. Some medications might also contribute to a weakened immune system, like chemotherapy drugs, steroids, and anti-rejection medications for organ transplant patients.
Lastly, many people associate shingles to a period of intense stress. While there is no direct correlation, it could make sense since stress does decrease immune function.
What are the symptoms?
The first signs of shingles are usually pain and a red rash wrapped around either side of the torso. Other symptoms include:
- Burning, tingling, numbness or sensitivity of the skin
- Chills, fever, headache, fatigue
- Upset stomach
- Mild itching
- Pain, which can become very intense
- Red rash that appears a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters
How does shingles affect the eyes?
Although it’s not common, about 10 to 20 percent of people with shingles also get it in and around the eyes – this is called ophthalmic herpes zoster. Shingles in the eyes can lead to scarring of the cornea, cataracts, glaucoma, and even vision loss. If the virus infects the nerves of the eye, symptoms can include:
- Redness or rashes in and around the eye
- Tingling in the face
- Conjunctivitis (also known as “pink eye”)
- Pain, throbbing and swelling
- Dry eyes
- Blurry vision
- Sensitivity to light
- Swelling of the optic nerve
Certain medications are available to help treat the pain associated with the virus or help slow the progression and shorten the duration of the infection. These include:
- Antiviral medications: these are most effective if given within the first 72 hours of symptoms
- Painkillers: while these will not affect the course of the infection, they can help alleviate the pain associated with the virus. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen might be suggested to relieve your pain.
- Numbing medicine or cream
- Certain anti-depressants: these can target the nerves to alleviate very intense and sometimes long-term pain, if necessary
If shingles has affected the eyes, additional treatments can include:
- Cool compresses
- Hydrating eye drops
- Anti-bacterial eye drops if an infection has occurred
Be sure to see your eye doctor if shingles has affected your eyes. They will be able to determine if other treatments are needed, especially if conditions like cataracts or glaucoma have developed as a result of the infection. Symptoms related to the eyes and face can take longer to heal than the rest of the body – up to several months. It will be important to continue with regular checkups with your eye doctor to monitor for any complications or long-term effects.