Herpes Simplex and the Eye: What do I need to know?

Did you know that the herpes virus can affect your eyes? While most of us are know that herpes can cause cold sores and genital ulcers, many people are surprised to learn that this infection can affect your eyes too!

What is herpes simplex?

Herpes simplex is a virus that comes in two varieties: Type I and Type II. Herpes Simplex Type I is the type that tends to affect body parts located “above the belt.” Most commonly, it causes cold sores. It can be transmitted through saliva and is very common. In fact, 90% of people have this virus by the time they are adults. Type I is the type of virus that can infect your eye.

On the other hand, Herpes Simplex Type II tends to affect body parts “below the belt.” It is usually sexually transmitted and can cause genital ulcers.

Courtesy of Eduardo Habkost on Flickr

Courtesy of Eduardo Habkost on Flickr

How does Herpes infect my eye?

Once you acquire the herpes virus, it never goes away! It lives forever hidden inside your nerves. Most of the time, you do not get any symptoms from this virus. But sometimes, especially during times of stress, the herpes virus can reactivate and cause symptoms, especially on your face. People who have a weakened immune system are also more likely to be affected. This virus can cause sores in your mouth and lips, commonly known as “cold sores.” More rarely though, they can also cause “sores” on your eyes too!

What symptoms should I look for?

When the herpes simplex virus infects your eye, it can often cause discomfort and red eye. Other symptoms include tearing, blurred vision, and discomfort when you look at bright lights. It can even cause your eyelids to form a rash. Usually, it only affects one eye at a time, though sometimes both can be involved. If untreated, this infection can cause permanent vision loss!

What should I do if I have these symptoms?

If you have any of the symptoms described above, it would be a good idea to seek professional medical attention as soon as possible. An optometrist can help make the diagnosis and provide the appropriate treatment. The eye doctor may take a close look at your eye with a device we call a “slit lamp” to see if the outer portion of your eye is affected. They may also give you eye drops to better make the diagnosis.

How is herpes simplex treated?

In mild cases, medication may not be needed and your doctor may simply have you come back into the office in a couple days to ensure that everything is fine. However, in more severe cases, known as Herpes Simplex Keratitis, your doctor may decide to give you medication. Patients with Herpes Simplex Keratitis are often treated with antiviral eye drops and may also receive oral antiviral medication. It is very important to take these medications as instructed, since this infection can cause permanent vision loss if untreated. Your doctor will have you come back to the office to ensure that the infection resolves appropriately.

~Anne Bui, Optometry Student at Marshall B. Ketchum University

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