While a rare condition, anyone who has had chickenpox can develop Ramsay Hunt syndrome later in life. Learn all about this condition, including the symptoms, treatment and long-term outlook.
You might already be familiar with shingles, the painful rash that occurs when a nerve and the skin around it are infected by reactivated chickenpox virus (varicella-zoster virus). Ramsay Hunt syndrome is an outbreak of shingles limited to the facial nerves near your ears.
Shingles (herpes zoster) affects approximately 1 out of every 3 people in the United States. Ramsay Hunt syndrome is much more uncommon, and the effects can be particularly uncomfortable due to the location on the face. If not treated quickly, Ramsay Hunt syndrome can result in issues with hearing, balance and speech, the latter due to facial paralysis.
Anyone who has had chickenpox is susceptible to developing shingles or Ramsay Hunt syndrome because the virus lives in the body and can remain dormant for many years.
The primary Ramsay Hunt syndrome symptoms are facial paralysis and a rash affecting the ear. The severity of the symptoms can vary by person, but the onset is typically sudden and presents similarly to Bell’s palsy, a more common condition that also causes facial paralysis.
However, Ramsay Hunt syndrome is distinct because it is accompanied by a blistering rash in the ear, hearing loss and pain when the ear is touched. Additional symptoms include:
Ramsay Hunt syndrome is caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox or varicella-zoster virus. When the virus reactivates, it attacks and infects the facial nerve nearest to the inner ear.
Reactivation of the virus is often the result of a weakened immune system. This can happen naturally with age or stress. It can also be a result of treatments or medications taken for other conditions that have the side effect of weakening your immune system.
It is imperative to be seen by a healthcare provider if you have symptoms of Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Delaying treatment, even in a matter of days, can result in permanent complications. A thorough exam might include neurological tests, blood tests and imaging to rule out other causes. Only a qualified healthcare provider can give you a Ramsay Hunt syndrome diagnosis.
Ramsay Hunt syndrome treatment typically includes a high-dose steroid and antiviral medication. Patients might also be prescribed eye drops and ointments for the rash, and other treatment options might be explored based on the individual’s needs. Additional treatments could include:
Home remedies such as cold compresses can also help relieve some discomfort.
Most people recover fully, but Ramsay Hunt syndrome recovery time and degree can vary by person, lasting from weeks to months. Better results can correlate to early treatment, which is why patients need to be treated as soon as symptoms occur.
The symptoms are often temporary, but complications from Ramsay Hunt syndrome can occur. Potential complications include: