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Shingles is the term we use to describe a condition that is caused by a re-activation of the Herpes Varicella-Zoster virus. The origin of this infection usually goes way back to childhood with a disease we know as chickenpox.

When you have a chickenpox infection your immune system manages to eventually suppress that virus from causing an active infection, but the virus does not get completely eliminated from your body--it is able to go and hide in your nerve roots.

Your immune system manages to keep the virus in check for most of your life but there may come a time in adulthood when your immune system is not working as well as it used to, and the virus can reappear. It usually does this along the distribution of a single sensory nerve called a dermatome.

The most common area for this to occur is along your trunk (chest or abdomen) but it is also commonly found on the face.

There are three branches of nerves that supply sensation to your face. They are all branches of the fifth cranial nerve. Those three branches supply the upper face (V1), the mid face (V2), and the lower face (V3).  Most of the time, shingles breaks out along only one of the branches at a time. The one that most frequently involves the eye is a rash breakout in the V1 distribution. This can involve the forehead and both the upper and lower eyelid.  It is also much more likely that the inside of the eye will be involved if the tip of the nose has a lesion on it.  The reason for that is that there is a specific subbranch of the V1 nerve called the nasocilliary nerve. This nerve is responsible for sensation on the tip of the nose and the inside of the eye.

The hallmark of shingles is that once the rash erupts it stays on one side of the body, including when it happens on the face. The rash will go up to the centerline of your face but will not go to the other side. You may get lesions on your scalp, but they will not show up on the back of your head. That is because the V1 does not go past half way back on your scalp. The back of your head has its sensation handled by nerves that come out of your spinal cord not cranial nerves that come out of the front of your skull.

Many people have a hard-to-describe sensation of pain, irritation, or itching along the distribution of the nerve for a day or two before the rash shows up. It is important to recognize the rash as quickly as possible because the drugs that treat shingles--usually Acyclovir, Famvir (famciclovir), or Valtrex (valacyclovir)--are much more effective if they are started within three days of the beginning of the rash.

Eye problems may occur along with the rash, especially if there is a lesion on the tip of the nose.

The two biggest problems are swelling or inflammation of the cornea and inflammation inside the eye, which we call iritis or uveitis.  

The inflammation in the eye can cause pain and it can also increase eye pressure and cause glaucoma. Most often the treatment for the eye problem is to use the same oral medication mentioned above and sometimes it also can require eye drops to decrease the inflammation the virus is causing (steroid drops) or drops to try and lower the elevated pressure (glaucoma drops).

The eye inflammation can cause blurred vision, pain, and significant light sensitivity. It can be hard to treat and control and can continue to be a problem long after the skin lesions are gone. In fact, many times problems don’t even start until the skin lesions are starting to go away.

It is recommended that if you have shingles affecting the distribution of V1 that you have an eye exam within a few days of the diagnosis being made and then again a week later because, as mentioned above, the eye problems can present a week later than the skin eruptions.

There can be some serious long-term effects of shingles on your eye, including glaucoma and corneal scarring that can be bad enough to require a corneal transplant. The symptoms are often obvious with the vision being blurry and the eye being very red and painful, but sometimes the symptoms may be much more mild even when significant trouble is brewing inside the eye. So even if you think the eye feels fine, you need an exam to ensure there is not subtle inflammation or significant elevation of the pressure in the eye.

The other long-term problem with shingles around the eye is the possibility of there being ongoing pain in the area that can last for many years. This is called Post Herpetic Neuralgia (PHN). This pain can occur all along the dermatome where shingles had occurred. The eye itself may look perfectly normal but the pain persists. This is often treated with drugs that were originally developed as seizure medication but have since been shown to help alleviate neurological pain. The two most commonly used drugs for this are Neurontin (Gabapentin) and Lyrica (Pregabalin).

The most important thing you can do to try and make sure this doesn’t happen to you is to be vaccinated for shingles. The original vaccination called Zostavax has been available since 2006 in the U.S.  It is a single-injection vaccine and was recommend for everyone over 60.  The main issue with this vaccine is that it only reduced the risk of getting shingles by 51% and PHN by 67%.  In 2017 a new vaccine was approved in the U.S. called Shingrix. This vaccine is a two-injection vaccine with the second shot given 2 to 6 months after the first. This vaccine is recommended for everyone 50 years or older.  The big advantage of this vaccine is that is 85-97% effective in preventing both shingles and PHN.  For more information about this vaccine you can go to the CDC website by clicking here.

Article contributed by Dr. Brian Wnorowski, M.D.

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Ask Dr. Stewart Your Eye Care Questions

What can be expected during a contact lens fitting?

A patient can expect to have a different experience when having a contact lens fitting. In addition to the eyeglass exam, questions will be asked to determine which contact lens will work best for them. Will they want to leave the lenses in their eyes overnight or will they remove them every day? Will they wear them only occasionally or will they be for everyday use? Do they want a contact lens that they throw away every day or do they want a contact lens that they have to clean and disinfect? If the patient is over age 40 and has a compromised ability to see up close, how will they see up close with their contact lenses? Will they wear readers over their distant contacts, or will they wear multifocal contacts, or will they wear monovision?

Are some people more prone to having Dry Eyes than others?

Experiencing dry eye symptoms is more common as we grow older, particularly in people 50 years of age and older. Hormonal changes in women who are experiencing menopause or who are post-menopausal. Inflammation in our body can affect the tear gland's ability to produce tears. Eye or health conditions such as glaucoma, diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjogren's Syndrome can be associated with Dry Eyes. Environmental conditions such as dry winter air, dry indoor heated air, working on the computer, and wearing contact lenses can cause Dry Eyes.

Are there advantages to single-use contact lenses? What are they?

Single-use daily wear contacts are convenient to the patient and a healthy recommendation from their eye doctor. At the end of the day, the patient only has to dispose of the contacts. There is no need to take the contacts out to clean and disinfect them. The patients time and money spent on solutions and caring for them are eliminated. Not to mention that the next time they wear a contact, they will be wearing a brand new contact! The single best recommendation your eye doctor can make is to recommend single-use daily wear contacts. They are the healthiest contact that can be worn. The contact lens pathology issues of wearing the same contact for two or four weeks such as neovascularization, microcystic edema, and bacterial infections are greatly reduced.

What is an eye infection?

Your eyes can get infections from bacteria, fungi, or viruses. Eye infections can occur in different parts of the eye and can affect just one eye or both. Two common eye infections are conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye) and lid styes which are swollen lid bumps that can also be painful. Common signs of an eye infection are pain, itching, or a sensation of a foreign body in the eye, photosensitivity, redness or small red lines in the white of the eye, discharge of yellow pus that may be crusty upon awaking, and tears.

What happens during a typical Diabetic Eye Exam?

Your Eye Doctor will evaluate the back of your eye called the Retina to check for leaking blood vessels. Diabetic retinopathy occurs when elevated blood sugars damage the walls of the blood vessels. The vessel walls may thicken, leak, develop clots, close off, or grow balloon-like defects called microaneurysms.

My eyes tear all the time. Why do you call it Dry Eyes?

Your eyes have extra tears because your eyes produce extra tears to combat irritation and dryness. A better way to describe Dry Eyes is tear film instability, which refers to the composition of your tears not being in the proper composition. Stopping eyes from producing extra tears is a goal in the treatment of Dry Eyes.

At what age should my child have his/her eyes examined?

If you ask 10 different Doctors you will get 10 different answers. Newborns have their eyes checked in the birthing ward for starters. From birth to age 5 their eyes are growing. At age 5 is a good time to schedule a regular eye examination, however, if any unusual eye behavior is observed under age 5 an eye exam should be scheduled at that time. Unusual eye behavior such as eye squinting, a head tilt, or having to get close to see.