Shingles (herpes zoster) eye infection may cause blurry vision, swollen eyelids

By: Dr. Victor Marchione | General Health | Monday, March 14, 2016 - 03:00 PM

Shingles (herpes zoster) eye infectionHerpes zoster, which is commonly known as shingles, causes painful blisters near the nerves on one side of your body, but what many people don’t realize is that it can also cause damage to your eyes, including eye infection, blurry vision, and swollen eyelids.

If you haven’t had chickenpox then you can’t get herpes zoster, but if you have had chickenpox, it is a possibility. Herpes zoster or shingles is, in fact, a virus. Early diagnosis can reduce the risk of complications such as eye infection, blurry vision, and swollen eyelids.

A herpes zoster eye infection can be unpleasant, so catching it early and getting treatment is always preferable. In the early stages of a herpes zoster eye infection, a person might feel a sharp stabbing pain or possibly an itching or burning sensation in the forehead, eyelid, or even the sides of the nose. A fever, headache, and chills may also be experienced early on.  Three to five days later, blisters may appear on the forehead or inside the eyelids and tip of nose. The blisters start our clear with a red base, but over the next seven days, the clearness turns to puss or might even bleed. The virus can impact just the skin, or the following can happen:

  • Red, painful watery eyes
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurry vision
  • Feeling as if you have something in your eye

In some cases, people only have eye symptoms and no blisters.

You can have shingles on the eyelid and around the eye that are very irritating. They cause swelling, redness, and pain. Shingles that involve the eye are called herpes zoster ophthalmicus.

When a person is getting over shingles that are on their body, the blisters start to crust over, and the pain and irritation tend to disappear over a period of one to three weeks. When the shingles virus damages a nerve, you can have pain or tingling for months or even years after the actual blister rash has healed.

Research suggests that people with weakened immune systems, those who are under stress, and older individuals are at a higher risk of getting shingles. Herpes zoster eye infections seem to be random and not necessarily associated with stress or immune weakness, according to current data, but studies continue on the subject.

Shingles and eye complications

As I am sure you can imagine, shingles in the eye is not something you want to experience. It can be terribly uncomfortable. The varicella zoster virus, as it is called, does come with complications, including potential eye difficulties.

In about two percent of shingles cases where eyes are involved, there are complications. In some cases, these problems can lead to loss of vision. For example, eye inflammation beginning with fever, headache, decreased vision, pain, and droopy eyelid needs to be addressed.  If a person has blisters or lesions near an eye, they should seriously consider seeing an eye specialist.

Retinal inflammation can cause a condition called acute retinal necrosis. The retina is located in the back of the eye. It senses light and controls our vision. Retinal inflammation normally starts with blurry vision and pain in one eye. In some people, it later impacts the other eye. If treated quickly, it can be improved.

Shingles eye infections diagnosis and treatment

eye infectionEye infections associated with shingles are normally detected by signs and symptoms including erosion on the outer layer of the cornea. An eye doctor diagnoses this during an exam using eye drops containing a yellow dye and a blue light. The erosion linked to shingles usually has a tree-branching pattern to it. An eye doctor will also take a close look at eye tissues. In some cases, a culture will be taken to confirm diagnosis.

Oftentimes, initial shingles treatment for the eye is eye drop medications. Oral antiviral medications are also prescribed, but they do not cure eye infections or shingles, they reduce the chances of the problem happening again.

When eye pressure is impacted due to swelling, a pressure-lowering medication may also be suggested. As well, inflammation may require medications such as steroid treatments.

Most shingle eye infections that are on the outer layer of the cornea get better within a few week of antiviral treatment.

Sometimes herpes zoster can leave scarring on the cornea, but this is something that can be corrected with surgery.

Preventing herpes zoster eye infection

Many people who experience frequent, reoccurring herpes zoster eye infections are prescribed a low-dose antiviral drug on a daily basis. It has been known to reduce recurrences. You do have to have a detailed discussion with your doctor to determine if this is a safe option for you. There is also a shingles vaccine. It is available to people who are 50 years of age or older. The vaccine can help prevent or lessen the symptoms of shingles. It is not a treatment once a person actually has shingles.

Research continues in an effort to come up with ways to get rid of the varicella zoster virus that causes shingles and the eye infections that can accompany the condition. In the meantime, maintaining good overall health, including a strong immune system and lowering stress may help you keep the nasty virus at bay.

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