Shingles is the adult onset of the common varicella-zoster virus, sometimes called Chickenpox, which can lie dormant within the body for decades before causing an outbreak of painful rashes and blisters – but did you know that a shingles rash can spread to the inside of your eye?
Adult breakouts of shingles typically occur on one side of the body, usually the torso. However, for around one in five sufferers, this rash can begin on the face before spreading around and inside of the eye, causing blindness and vision loss if not treated properly.
This condition is known as ophthalmic shingles and can be incredibly painful for sufferers, however, there is a facial symptom that can allow you to pre-empt an outbreak of rashes in your eye – called Hutchinson’s sign.
Eye and other facial rashes or boils are caused by the former Chickenpox virus re-activating in what is known as the trigeminal nerve, an important connection between the brain, mouth, and nose, as well as the cornea.
Frequently, this outbreak within the nervous system will first manifest as small spots and boils on the tip of the nose, which is what doctors call Hutchinson’s sign. If left unchecked, the shingles will spread from the nose across the face and into the eye.
If the ophthalmic shingles is picked up in its earliest stage, the infection can be treated and prevented from spreading to the eyes where it could cause long-term vision loss and blindness.
Dr Miriam Barshak of Harvard Medical School has previously emphasised the importance of spotting Hutchinson’s sign early, saying: “Treatment decreases the risk of later eye complications by about 40 per cent to 60 per cent.
“When started within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms, antiviral treatment also reduces the overall severity of the infection and the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia, a form of long-term pain that can occur after an episode of shingles.”
Hutchinson’s sign symptoms and when to worry:
People who experience Hutchinson’s sign will usually also experience some of the other shingles symptoms, such as photosensitivity. Typically, these are the early symptoms of the shingles virus activating within your trigeminal nerve:
Small blisters, bumps, and pustules appearing on the tip of your nose.
Burning sensation in the rash area
Pins and needles in the rash area
However, if the infection has spread to your eye, you are likely to also experience:
Burning pain in your eye
Redness around and in the eye
Extreme light sensitivity
If you spot Hutchinson’s sign you should immediately speak to your doctor to prevent the infection from spreading to your eye, where it can cause blindness, glaucomas, and persistent inflammation.
Your doctor is likely to prescribe a week’s course of antiviral medication, which will be more effective the earlier the infection is caught. Medical professionals are also likely to recommend pain management medication, as an ocular shingles infection can cause painful grit to build under the eyelid, as well as sensitivity to light and shooting pains.