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Q: What is herpes zoster, and can if affect the eyes?

Posted May 08, 2013 in Advice Column, Norwalk

A: Herpes zoster, commonly known as “shingles,” is caused by the same virus responsible for chicken pox. The virus remains in the body in a dormant stage after an infection with chicken pox as a child. Later in life, the virus can be reactivated if the body’s immune system is weakened by factors that include age, illness, fatigue, stress, poor nutrition, chemotherapy or radiation therapy and certain medications.

The herpes zoster virus lives in the body’s nerve tissues. When the virus is reactivated, the first symptoms are pain, itching and tingling in the skin, followed by redness, numbness and the development of crusty scabs. The outbreak of shingles typically lasts for a few weeks, but in severe cases the rash can leave permanent scars, numbness and skin discoloration.

Numerous problems can occur if the nerves of the eyes are infected with the herpes zoster virus. These may include a rash on the eyelids, conjunctivitis (pink eye), dry eyes, increased risk of bacterial eye infection, blurred vision and light sensitivity, iritis (inflammation inside the eye) and optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve). Treatment for the rash, inflammation, burning and pain may include cool compresses, anti-inflammatory medication, anti-viral medication, antibiotic drops, lubricant drops and pain medication. Surgery and long-term care may be necessary for more serious complications such as corneal scarring, eyelid scarring, glaucoma and cataracts. Prompt treatment of ocular herpes zoster infection is important to reduce the risk of sight threatening complications.

Answer provided by Dr. Michael O’Meara at Optometric Association of Warren County, P.C., 1228 Sunset Drive, Suite A, Norwalk, 981-0224.

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