What is Ocular Herpes?
While you have probably heard of oral and genital herpes, common sexually transmitted diseases, you might not be aware that the same herpes simplex virus (HSV) that causes them can also give rise to ocular herpes, or herpes of the eyes. Like genital and oral herpes, ocular herpes produces inflammation and painful sores - only these sores appear on the eyelid or the surface of the eye. In mild cases the infections last a few days and can be treated with antiviral medication. However in more severe cases, the infection penetrates deeper into the cornea of the eye. This dangerous condition can not only scar the cornea but can lead to loss of vision and ultimately blindness.
Ocular herpes is the leading cause of blindness due to infection, and according to the National Eye Institute (NEI) more than 400,000 Americans have experienced some form of eye herpes, and there are approximately 50,000 new cases each year. This is not surprising given that the HSV infection is so easily spread by simply touching the eye after having been in contact with a herpes blister or sore. Moreover, it is estimated that a person who develops ocular herpes has up to a 50% chance of having a recurrent infection.
Types of Ocular Herpes
Keratitis caused by HSV-1 is an inflammation of the outermost part of the cornea and usually affects only one eye. Keratitis must be treated! If left untreated, permanent damage to the eye can result.
Stromal keratitis is a more severe form of eye herpes in which the infection spreads to deeper layers of the cornea. If scarring or thinning of the cornea occurs, the eye's globe may rupture, resulting in blindness.
Iridocyclitis is yet another severe form of ocular herpes, wherein the iris and the area surrounding it become infected. Such acute cases may also be caused by HSV-2.
Symptoms and Treatment of Ocular Herpes
Symptoms of ocular herpes include: red eyes, watery eyes, swelling around the eye, pain, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, and a sensation of something sand-like in the eye or a cloudy layer over the cornea.
Mild cases of ocular herpes can be cleared up within a few days with antiviral eye drops. However, like all types of herpes, ocular herpes cannot be cured (since the virus remains in the body) and thus recurrent infections are possible. In more severe cases of eye herpes, a doctor might administer anesthetic eye drops in order to "debride" or gently scrape the infected tissue off the cornea. Following this procedure one might be given an eye patch or a soft contact lens to wear to protect the eye until the infection heals. Individuals with scarring in the cornea might require surgery, and in the most extreme but rare cases a corneal transplant might be necessary.
Ocular Herpes Prevention
- Do not touch your eyes with your fingers if you been in contact with any blisters or cold sores (your own or someone else's)
- Do not use over over-the-counter steroid eye drops, which can make HSV infections worse
- If you wear contact lenses, practice good contact lens hygiene and keep eyes moist with moisturizing eye drops.