Shingles begins as chickenpox, a painful, itchy rash. The varicella-zoster virus, a relative of the herpes virus that causes cold sores, causes chickenpox then goes dormant in the nerves, often for many years. If it becomes an active virus again, it manifests itself in the skin as shingles. Shingles patients experience pain, blisters, chills, fever, headaches and general malaise. Shingles near the eye can lead to vision loss. Because shingles can be spread to others, people with weak immune systems risk catching the disease from an afflicted friend or family member.
Ramsay Hunt Syndrome
Complications from shingles sometimes include neural palsy, a form of paralysis caused by nerve damage. In one such palsy, Ramsay Hunt syndrome, the varicella-zoster virus attacks a facial nerve, paralyzing one side of the face in a way that can resemble the effects of a stroke. The patient may also suffer dizziness, ear pain and hearing loss. Complications may include permanent hearing damage, eye problems and ongoing nerve pain even after the illness has subsided.
The varicella-zoster virus can cause another type of facial paralysis called Bell's palsy, in which the virus inflames the facial nerve so that it swells against the bones of the face, creating symptoms similar to Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Depending on the degree of nerve damage, Bell's palsy may clear up on its own in as little as one month, or in the most severe cases, the paralysis may be permanent.
Ramsay Hunt syndrome can respond well to treatment begun within a week of the disorder's first appearance. Treatment typically includes antiviral medication, anti-inflammatory drugs to relieve pain and swelling and Valium for dizzy spells. Physical therapy can help exercise and re-coordinate weakened facial muscles. Similar measures may speed recovery in Bell's palsy patients, but this disorder usually resolves itself even without treatment. Patients with either type of neural palsy may also benefit from some form of eye protection if the affected eye cannot close on its own.
While the varicella-zoster virus never leaves the body, certain vaccines can protect people from ever catching it. Babies may receive a vaccine called Varivax to prevent or minimize that initial attack of chickenpox, while a newer vaccine, Zostavax, protects senior citizens. People over the age of 60 seem more vulnerable to shingles, and making vaccinations available to this segment of the population has reduced the number of cases by 50 percent.