Herpes Simplex Eye Infections

What is a herpes simplex eye infection?

Herpes simplex is a disease caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). This virus causes painful sores or blisters on the lips, nose, and genital area. HSV can also infect your eyes.

What is the cause?

HSV is spread through contact with fluid from blisters. The infection can be spread, for example, by kissing, by sharing food or drink, or by not washing your hands after touching the sores. Most people are exposed during childhood or the early teens.

Once you are infected, the virus stays in your body, even after the sores are gone. The virus can become active again and cause blisters to form during or after:

  • Too much sun exposure
  • Physical illness, such as a cold
  • Dental treatment
  • Stress or tiredness
  • Hormonal changes caused by pregnancy or a woman's menstrual cycle

Often the cause of outbreaks is unknown.

Although HSV is contagious, the spread of an HSV eye infection to another person is rare. You are more at risk for HSV eye infections if:

  • You have had past herpes infections on the mouth, nose, or genitals.
  • You have had an injury, such as a scrape of your eye.
  • You wear contact lenses.

In some people, HSV eye outbreaks come back. If not treated, repeated sores can damage the cornea, which is the clear outer layer on the front of your eye.

What are the symptoms?

Herpes simplex eye infections can cause some of the same symptoms as allergies, other viruses, and reactions to some medicines. The symptoms of HSV eye infections are:

  • Red, itchy, burning, or watery eyes
  • Blisters on or near your eyelid
  • Painful sensitivity to light
  • Blurry vision
  • Feeling like you have something in your eye or under the eyelid

HSV often affects just one eye.

How are they diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and activities and examine your skin and eyes. Fluid from your eye surface or your skin may be sent to a lab to check for the virus.

How are they treated?

Herpes simplex eye symptoms may go away without any treatment, but this may take weeks. Your healthcare provider can prescribe medicines to decrease the number of days you have symptoms and speed your recovery.

Blisters on or near your eyelid usually go away without long-term effects. As a general rule, the deeper inside your eye the infection is, the more likely that the effect will last longer. If symptoms come back days, weeks, or years after the initial symptoms have healed, you are more likely to have permanent scarring.

Neither your immune system nor medicines can get rid of the virus completely. After the first outbreak, HSV may not cause any problems for months or years. Then sores may reappear when your immune system is weakened by disease or stress. Sometimes HSV is active but you do not have any blisters.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment your healthcare provider prescribes. Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

What can I do to prevent herpes simplex eye infections?

Because herpes simplex virus is so common, you probably cannot prevent your first outbreak. If you keep getting symptoms, your provider may prescribe antiviral medicine to help prevent future outbreaks. This may help you lessen how often and how severe future outbreaks may be.

Reviewed for medical accuracy by faculty at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins. Web site: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/wilmer/

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