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What You Should Know About Herpes in the Eye

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What Is Eye Herpes and How Can it Affect Me?

Eye herpes, or HSV keratitis, is a common eye infection typically caused by type 1 herpes simplex virus (HSV-1).  It is the same virus that causes cold sores around the mouth and lips. However, eye herpes can also be caused by the HSV-2 and herpes zoster viruses.

Eye herpes affects approximately 1.5 million people around the world each year, and is one of the most common causes of infectious blindness in the USA and Canada. 

People typically contract eye herpes by touching a cold sore and then touching the eyes with their contaminated fingers. Once contracted, the virus stays in the body for life.

Ocular herpes tends to infect the cornea, causing inflammation, eye redness, tearing, and — in rare cases — vision loss. Many people with eye herpes may not even know they have it, as it can remain dormant within the nervous system without causing any flare-ups. It's not uncommon for HSV to reactivate months or even years after initially contracting the virus. Flare-ups usually resolve on their own within 1−2 weeks, and many of them will recur within 10 years. 

Herpetic eye infections can be confused with other types of “pink eye”, such as bacterial or other viral infections. Viruses are different than Bacterial infections and they don't respond to antibiotics.  Self-treating an eye infection with antibiotics you have at home can lead to permanent vision loss.  Come in and we can differentiate what the cause is.  We can prescribe the right medication. Eye herpes won't improve with antibiotics unless an antiviral is also used.

How Does Eye Herpes Affect the Eyes?

Eye herpes can affect many parts of the eye, such as:

  • Eyelids
  • Cornea (the clear layer on the front of your eye)
  • Retina (the light-sensing sheet of cells in the back of your eye)
  • Conjunctiva (the thin sheet of tissue covering the white part of your eye and the inside of your eyelids)
  • Iris (the colored part of your eye) 
  • Sclera (the white part of your eye) 

What are the Symptoms of Eye Herpes?

Various signs and symptoms are associated with eye herpes, such as: 

  • Tearing
  • Swollen lymph nodes at the front of the ear
  • Irritation
  • Redness
  • Eye sores
  • Watery eye discharge
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache and lethargy
  • Feeling of something stuck in the eye
  • Blisters or rash on the eyelids
  • Reduced or blurred vision 

Ocular (eye) Herpes usually affects only one eye, but it is not uncommon for both eyes to be infected.

Left untreated, eye herpes can cause corneal ulcers and scarring.  That can lead to permanent vision loss and even blindness. If you suspect you have Ocular Herpes, please contact Family Eye Care in Old Bridge as soon as possible to prevent further complications. 

What Causes Eye Herpes Flare-Ups?

Major stressors can often lead to a bout of eye herpes. These include:

  • Emotional distress 
  • Excessive sunlight exposure (UV rays) 
  • Fever
  • Major surgical or dental procedures
  • Refractive surgery (LASIK, etc.)
  • Trauma

A weakened immune system can also put you at increased risk of an eye herpes reactivation, and potentially lead to an outbreak.

Can Eye Herpes Be Prevented?

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk. There is no foolproof way to prevent an eye herpes infection — or any other type of eye infection, for that matter.   

It is important to remember to keep your eyes and hands clean. all the more important if you have cold sores. Furthermore, it's critical that you avoid touching your eyes if you or someone around you has an outbreak. 

If you wear contact lenses, do not wear them longer than recommended.  Do not wear them while swimming because there are chemicals and germs in the water that can get into the matrix of the lens, and then irritate your eyes as it leaches out of the lens.  It can cause an infection.  

We Can Help if in Fact you have Ocular Herpes. 

if someone has recurrent Herpes, there are treatments to prevent vision loss and help control future outbreaks.  Early diagnosis and treatment, ideally within a 72 hour window, can help mitigate severe eye damage and significantly improve your symptoms.

Treatment typically includes antiviral medication, which can be eye drops, ointment, or oral medication. We will instruct you on how to manage your symptoms and prevent reinfection. 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of Ocular Herpes, call Family Eye Care in Old Bridge to promptly schedule your eye exam with Dr. Moshe Roth and Dr. Steffani Tiomno.


#1: How long do eye herpes symptoms last? 

Most bouts of eye herpes last about 1-2 weeks, but can sometimes last longer. Treatment is usually for 2 weeks and you should see improvement within 5 days of treatment. it is important to contact us at the first sign of an outbreak to start treatment as soon as possible and minimize the risk of eye damage. 

#2: How often do flare-ups recur? 

20% of people who’ve had eye herpes will have another outbreak within a year of the initial infection. While several factors contribute to recurrence, if you experience multiple flare-ups, we may need to use a daily antiviral medication to prevent further outbreaks.