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Justin Bieber’s mystery illness: Ramsay Hunt syndrome

Written By: Simone Sonnier, UT Physicians | Updated: June 17, 2022
Musician on stage playing an instrument

An understandably worrisome diagnosis for a singer, Ramsay Hunt syndrome can affect an individual’s ability to speak if left untreated.

Headlines have been inundated with the news of Justin Bieber’s recent diagnosis of Ramsay Hunt syndrome (RHS). Learn more about the rare neurological condition and its treatment options.

What is Ramsay Hunt syndrome?

Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a reactivation of a common virus many individuals have been exposed to at some point in their childhood — varicella zoster virus (VZV), also known as chickenpox.

John W. Lindsey, MD
John. W. Lindsey, MD

“After the initial infection, usually in childhood, the virus remains in a latent form in the nerves. If it reactivates in the facial nerve, it can lead to facial paralysis with blisters in or around the ear,” explained John W. Lindsey, MD, neurologist and director of the Division of Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology and professor at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

This is similar to shingles, which typically causes the same blister reaction to a person’s chest or abdomen, but RHS can lead to more severe symptoms — nerve dysfunction affecting a person’s ability to speak, persistent and acute pain, and skin lesions.

Experts are unsure about what triggers the condition, but one common element is that older individuals or those with a suppressed immune system are at a higher risk.

What are the treatment options?

Although this condition sounds worrisome, the good news is there is a way to treat it. Antiviral medications are usually prescribed to those with RHS to lessen their symptoms.

Thankfully, Bieber is young and appears to be a healthy individual. Lindsey believes his outcome and future career are bright.

“Given Justin’s younger age, I expect he’ll have a good recovery,” he shared. “Severe face weakness can affect the ability to speak or sing clearly, but from what I’ve seen in his recent interviews, his speech is not really affected.”

Most individuals recover from RHS, but there is still a possibility of lingering damage or disability. Lindsey recommends all individuals ages 50 and older receive their VZV vaccine to reduce the risk of Ramsay Hunt syndrome and shingles.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.