Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a herpes zoster virus infection of the geniculate ganglion of the facial nerve. Ramsay Hunt syndrome causes paralysis of the facial muscles on the same side of the face as the infection. It is usually associated with a rash (vesicles or tiny water-filled bumps in the skin) in or around the ear, and sometimes on the roof of the mouth.
The varicella zoster virus causes both Ramsay Hunt syndrome and another common cause of facial weakness, Bell's palsy. This virus is a relative of human herpes viruses (which cause fever sores on the mouth and genital herpes). The varicella zoster virus also causes two other diseases -- shingles (which is also a nerve infection, affecting the so-called "dorsal roots," the nerves of the sides of the trunk) and chicken pox (a disease characterized by an itchy rash, commonly affecting children). The virus is believed to infect the facial nerve near the inner ear in this condition, which results in local inflammation (irritation and swelling with presence of extra immune cells). The extent of the symptoms may reflect the severity of the nerve inflammation.
The Ramsay Hunt syndrome is usually associated with a rash - vesicles or tiny water- filled bumps - in or around the ear and sometimes also on the roof of the mouth. Ramsay Hunt syndrome is usually more painful than Bell's palsy and the prognosis for Ramsey Hunt syndrome is usually not as good as that for Bell's palsy.
Diagnosis is generally determined by observation of evidence of facial weakness and a vesicular rash. Occasionally, a nerve conduction study will be done to determine the extent of damage to the facial nerve and potential for recovery. The more severe the damage, the longer it will take to recover and the lower the chance of complete return to normal function. Occasionally, blood tests can be used to determine whether or not an infection with the varicella zoster virus has occurred. There is a promising laboratory technique called "PCR", which can detect very small amounts of viral DNA in the affected skin. However, it is mostly used for research nowadays. The use of neuroimaging (pictures of the brain), particularly MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), can sometimes show inflammation of the facial nerves and determine whether the infection has spread to other nerves or the brain. A spinal tap is used in rare cases, especially when the diagnosis is not clear
Treatment with anti-viral medications, such as acyclovir or famciclovir is recommended for 7 to 10 days, along with strong anti-inflamatory drugs called steroids (such as prednisone) for 3 to 5 days. The steroids are then tapered off in about one week. Sometimes strong pain killers are also needed if the pain persists despite the use of the steroids. During the period of facial weakness, an eye patch should be worn to prevent corneal abrasion and damage to the eye (if it does not close completely).