The same virus that causes chicken pox causes herpes zoster. After being infected with chicken pox as a child, the virus remains in a dormant stage. If your body’s immune system breaks down, the virus can be reactivated. A number of factors can cause this to happen:
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
- Emotional or physical stress
- Poor nutrition
- Chemo or radiation therapy
- Certain medications
The herpes zoster virus lives in your body’s nerve tissues. The first symptoms upon reactivation are pain, itching and tingling of the skin, followed by redness, numbness and development of a rash. The rash forms small, fluid-filled blisters called vesicles that will later break open and form crusty scabs. An outbreak of shingles often lasts a few weeks. In severe cases the rash can leave permanent scars, pain, numbness or skin discoloration.
The herpes zoster virus can cause numerous problems including:
- A rash on upper and lower eyelids
- Redness, burning and discharge of the conjunctiva
- Dry Eyes
- Increased risk of bacterial infection of the eye
- Optic neuritis (inflammation of the optic nerve behind the eye)
- Blurred vision
- Light sensitivity
- Iritis (inflammation, redness, swelling and pain inside the eye)
More severe complications can include glaucoma, cataract formation, double vision, and scarring of the eyelids and cornea. These complications will require a more extensive treatment.
How contagious is Herpes Zoster?
Herpes zoster is much less contagious than chicken pox. It is important that someone with shingles avoid those who may be more easily infected, such as infants, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems. It can only be passed to others who have not had chicken pox. Newly infected people will then develop chicken pox and not shingles.