Eye Herpes

Pink eye or Conjunctivitis
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Most people associate the herpes virus with cold sores around the mouth or sexual organs. Did you know that herpes can also affect your eyes? Herpes simplex keratitis, or eye herpes, is a recurrent viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Eye herpes is an inflammation of the cornea, the clear dome that covers the front part of your eye. HSV infection can be transferred to the eye by touching your eye after contact with an active lesion such as a cold sore or blister. (Herpes simplex keratitis is not to be confused with herpes zoster ophthalmicus, a condition caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox and shingles.)

Symptoms of Eye Herpes

Eye herpes (also called ocular herpes) can produce painful sores on the eyelid or eye surface and cause inflammation of the cornea. Symptoms of eye herpes often mimic those associated with conjunctivitis and include the following:

  • Pain in and around the eye
  • Redness, rash, or sores on the eyelids, around the eyes, or on the forehead
  • Eye redness
  • Swelling and cloudiness of the cornea
  • Tearing
  • Blurred vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Discharge

Causes of Eye Herpes

Eye herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, the same virus that causes cold sores on the lips and mouth. The National Eye Institute (NEI) estimates that 400,000 Americans have experienced some form of ocular herpes. Studies have shown that once a person develops ocular herpes, they have up to a 50% chance of having a recurrence.

Treatment of Eye Herpes

Mild infections of ocular herpes are usually treated with topical and oral antiviral medication. (It's worth noting that topical steroids can make things worse if antivirals are not part of the treatment.) Occasionally, to help speed healing, your eye doctor may rub the surface of the cornea to remove the infectious virus and viral antigens that contribute to the keratitis. Most cases of eye herpes resolve within three weeks. Your doctor's treatment will focus on minimizing damage and scarring. Antiviral therapy, topical or oral, is also useful in treating eye herpes infections. 

A Word From VeryWell

Eye herpes is the most common cause of corneal blindness in the United States. While it is difficult to externally transmit the herpes virus from one place on your body to another, one can easily transmit the virus to another person. It is very important to follow appropriate precautions to prevent spreading. Even if you already have one strain of the virus, you can again be infected with another strain. It is possible to have both genital and oral herpes at the same time. If you have symptoms of eye herpes, see your eye doctor. If left untreated, eye herpes may cause severe eye damage. Recurrent episodes of ocular herpes can cause scarring of the cornea that may lead to loss of vision and possibly blindness. 

View Article Sources
  • Sowka, Joseph W, Andrew S Gurwood and Alan G Kabat. "The Handbook of Ocular Disease Management," supplement to Review of Optometry. April 2010.