Justin Bieber took to Instagram to explain that he has been diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which can temporarily paralyze parts of a person’s face. It can be painful and stressful. Here’s what you need to know:
Ramsay Hunt syndrome, or herpes zoster oticus, is a rare neurological complication caused by the varicella zoster virus. The varicella zoster virus is the same virus that causes chickenpox and shingles.
“Ramsay Hunt is exceedingly rare. Most people come into contact with varicella zoster but very few people develop Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. The incidence is 5 per 100,000 people per year,” Dr. Leah Croll, MD, neurovascular fellow at NYU Langone Health, said to ABC News.
It is a syndrome that can occur in anyone who has had the virus. It is more common in adults, typically affecting people older than 60 years of age.
Croll said those most at risk include those who are immunocompromised such as people living with HIV or receiving chemotherapy.
Once you have had the virus, it can still live in your nerves. In Ramsay Hunt syndrome, the virus is reactivated and affects the facial nerve near one of your ears.
“The virus remains latent in the nervous system. Eventually later on in life the virus can reactivate and cause something like Ramsay Hunt syndrome," Dr. Croll said.
“Certain situations that can be stressful…situations that can cause someone to be immunocompromised. Other illnesses can trigger it. Sometimes we don’t know why it happens, ” she added.
In this syndrome, there is painful red rash that can be on, in, or around one ear with facial weakness or paralysis on the same side as the affected ear. People have difficulty closing one eye and an asymmetrical appearance of the face or “sagging."
Other symptoms include ear pain, ringing in the ears, hearing loss, sensation of spinning or moving, change in taste or loss of taste, dry mouth and eyes.
Treatment includes antiviral medications such as acyclovir or valacyclovir. Oral steroids are also usually given.
If there is limited damage to the nerve, one should recover within a few weeks. If the damage to the nerve is severe, one may not recover fully even after months.
Bieber has shared that he has been doing facial exercises. “It is thought that some facial exercises may be helpful for recovery,” Dr. Croll shared.
Complications of Ramsay Hunt include permanent hearing loss or facial weakness/paralysis, permanent eye damage, and a condition called postherpetic neuralgia which leads pain caused by damaged nerve fibers.
“Try to get treated sooner rather than later. The chances of recovering strength in your face are better if you initiate treatment earlier,” Dr. Croll added.
“The best thing to do for prevention is to keep up with your vaccinations including the chickenpox and shingles vaccines,” she continued.
Children are routinely vaccinated against chickenpox which reduces the chance of getting infected with the virus. The shingles vaccine is also recommended for people age 50 or older.
If you are experiencing trouble with movement of your face, or have a rash and facial weakness, please seek medical attention and speak to a medical professional.
Dr. Priya Jaisinghani is an Internal Medicine board certified physician and Endocrinology fellow at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell. Dr Priya Jaisinghani is also a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.