Herpes Simplex Eye Infections

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What is herpes simplex?

Herpes simplex is a disease caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Type 1 HSV often produces painful, fluid-filled blisters on the skin or other tissues. Cold sores and fever blisters are caused by this form of HSV.

Another herpes simplex virus, type 2 HSV, affects mainly the genital area. It is usually spread during sexual contact. All of the following information is about type 1 HSV.

How do herpes simplex eye infections occur?

HSV is very common. About 90% of adults have had the infection. HSV is spread through contact with fluid from a person’s mouth. Most people have their first infection during childhood or early adolescence.

Attacks of HSV that affect your skin or eyes can be triggered by:

  • Too much exposure to sunlight physical or emotional stress
  • A fever
  • A reaction to certain foods or medicines eye injury.

Sometimes the cause of attacks is unknown.

In some people, HSV eye infections recur often. If not treated, repeated infections can cause serious damage to the cornea (the clear dome on the front of the eye).

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of HSV eye infections are:

  • Blisters on or near the eyelid
  • Redness
  • Irritation
  • Tearing
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Blurred vision

HSV often affects only one eye.

How are they diagnosed?

Herpes simplex eye infections can be difficult to diagnose. They may cause the same symptoms as allergies, other viruses, and reactions to some medicines.

Your doctor will examine your skin and eyes and ask about your medical history. Your doctor may send some of the fluid from the blisters to a lab for analysis.

How are they treated?

Sometimes herpes simplex eye infections go away without any treatment. Other times your doctor will prescribe medicines in the form of eye drops or ointments to kill the virus. To help speed up healing, your eye doctor may scrape the blisters away with a cotton swab. If your eyes do not get better with these treatments, you may need to take medicine in pill form.

One type of herpes simplex destroys cells in the eyes. For this condition your eye doctor may recommend that you take an additional medicine (corticosteroids) to help prevent serious problems. However, corticosteroids should not be taken for other forms of HSV. Be sure that your eye doctor knows about all your symptoms.

Severe cases may require surgery. Some doctors recommend keratoplasty (a cornea transplant) if the cornea has been severely scarred. They may prescribe pills to reduce the chance of HSV in the transplant.

How long do the effects last?

After the first infection, 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.

The effects of HSV vary greatly from person to person. Your symptoms may go away in a few days or weeks. You may have only one attack after your initial infection in childhood. However, you may have a recurrence whenever your immune system is weakened or for unknown reasons.

What can I do to prevent herpes simplex eye infections?

Because type 1 herpes simplex virus is so common, you probably cannot prevent your first infection. Many cases are so mild that you may not know you have been exposed to HSV. Later in life, you may be able to prevent attacks by maintaining general good health and keeping stress in your life at a moderate level.

Sometimes attacks occur for no known reason and probably cannot be prevented.

Are herpes simplex eye infections contagious?

Herpes simplex usually doesn’t spread to the other eye, and spreading the virus to another person is unlikely. If you have an extremely weak immune system, the virus may spread to other parts of your body such as the retina or the brain, but not to another person.