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Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus

(Herpes Zoster Virus Ophthalmicus; Ophthalmic Herpes Zoster; Varicella-Zoster Virus Ophthalmicus)

By Melvin I. Roat, MD, FACS

Herpes zoster ophthalmicus is infection of the eye caused by the varicella-zoster virus.

Locating the Cornea

Varicella-zoster is the virus that causes chicken pox. Once people are infected, the virus remains in a dormant (inactive) stage in the nerve roots. In some people, the virus reactivates and may spread to the skin, causing herpes zoster, also called shingles. If the forehead or nose becomes infected, the eye also becomes infected in about half of people, on the same side as the affected skin.


Tingling of the forehead may occur before any other symptoms (called a prodrome).

The skin of the forehead and sometimes the tip of the nose are covered with small, extremely painful, red blisters.

Infection of the eye causes pain, redness, light sensitivity, and eyelid swelling. Months and years later, the cornea (the clear layer in front of the iris and pupil) can become swollen, severely damaged, and scarred. The structures behind the cornea can become inflamed ( uveitis), the pressure in the eye can increase ( glaucoma), and the cornea can become numb, which can lead to injuries.


  • A doctor's evaluation

The appearance of active shingles, a history of the typical rash, or old scars resulting from a previous shingles rash help a doctor make the diagnosis of shingles.


A shingles vaccine is recommended for healthy people aged 60 or over, regardless of whether they have had chickenpox or shingles. This vaccine decreases the chance of getting shingles by half. If shingles develops in people who have been vaccinated, it is less severe than in people who have not been vaccinated.


  • Antiviral drugs taken by mouth

  • Corticosteroid eye drops

  • Eye drops to keep the pupil dilated

As with shingles anywhere in the body, early treatment with an antiviral drug such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, or famciclovir (which are taken by mouth) can reduce the duration of the painful rash. When herpes zoster infects the face and threatens the eye, treatment with an antiviral drug reduces the risk of eye complications.

Corticosteroids, usually in eye drops, may also be needed if the eye is inflamed.

Eye drops, such as atropine, are used to keep the pupil dilated, to help prevent a severe form of glaucoma, and to relieve pain.

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* This is the Consumer Version. *