PURPOSE: To investigate the ocular complications of herpes zoster ophthalmicus in patients with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. METHODS: This was a retrospective cohort study of 48 HIV-infected patients (48 eyes) treated at San Francisco General Hospital for herpes zoster ophthalmicus from December 1985 through March 1994. RESULTS: All patients were initially treated with either intravenous or oral acyclovir. The median CD4 lymphocyte count at diagnosis was 48 per mm3 (range, 2 to 490 per mm3). Fifteen patients (31%) had mild or no ocular involvement. Seventeen patients (35%) had stromal keratitis, mostly mild, and two (4)% developed chronic infectious pseudodendritic keratitis. Twenty-four study patients (50%) had iritis, but only three (6%) had elevations in intraocular pressure. Two patients (4%) developed postherpetic neuralgia, and two others (4%) had zoster-associated central nervous system disease. Only two patients (4%) developed necrotizing retinitis, both in the form of the progressive outer retinal necrosis syndrome. CONCLUSIONS: Excluding the patients with retinitis and central nervous system disease, the rate of sight-threatening complications in our series was lower than expected. Almost one third of study patients had no ocular complications or only mild surface epithelial disease. Although the relatively low incidence of sight-threatening disease in our study population may have been a consequence of aggressive management with acyclovir, chronic infectious pseudodendritic keratitis, retinitis, and central nervous system disease, complications of ophthalmic zoster whose pathogenesis is largely a consequence of active viral replication, were particularly devastating and difficult to manage.