Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a painful rash around the ear, on the face, or on the mouth. It occurs when the varicella-zoster virus infects a nerve in the head.
The varicella-zoster virus that causes Ramsay Hunt syndrome is the same virus that causes chickenpox and shingles.
In people with this syndrome, the virus is believed to infect the facial nerve near the inner ear. This leads to irritation and swelling of the nerve.
The condition mainly affects adults. In rare cases, it is seen in children.
Symptoms may include:
A health care provider will usually diagnose Ramsay Hunt Syndrome by looking for signs of weakness in the face and a blister-like rash.
Tests may include:
Strong anti-inflammatory drugs called steroids (such as prednisone) are usually given. Antiviral medicines, such as acyclovir or valacyclovir may be given.
Sometimes strong painkillers are also needed if the pain continues even with steroids. While you have weakness of the face, wear an eye patch to prevent injury to the cornea (corneal abrasion) and other damage to the eye if the eye does not close completely. Some people may use a special eye lubricant at night and artificial tears during the day to prevent the eye from drying out.
If you have dizziness, your provider can advise other medicines.
If there is not much damage to the nerve, you should get better completely within a few weeks. If damage is more severe, you may not fully recover, even after several months.
Overall, your chances of recovery are better if the treatment is started within 3 days after the symptoms begin. When treatment is started within this time, most people make a full recovery. If treatment is delayed for more than 3 days, there is less of a chance of complete recovery. Children are more likely to have a complete recovery than adults.
Complications of Ramsay Hunt syndrome may include:
Occasionally, the virus may spread to other nerves, or even to the brain and spinal cord. This can cause:
If these symptoms occur, a hospital stay may be needed. A spinal tap may help determine whether other areas of the nervous system have been infected.
Call your provider if you lose movement in your face, or you have a rash on your face and facial weakness.
There is no known way to prevent Ramsay Hunt syndrome, but treating it with medicine soon after symptoms develop can improve recovery.
Reviewed By: Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.