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Herpes Simplex Virus Eye Disease


Herpes simplex is a virus that infects the skin, mucous membranes, and nerves. There are two major types of herpes simplex virus (HSV):

  • Type I is the most common and is responsible for herpes simplex eye disease and the familiar "cold sore" or "fever blister."

  • Type II is responsible for sexually transmitted herpes.


Eye with herpes simplex eye disease

The most common herpes simplex eye disease is an infection of the cornea, which can potentially lead to vision loss. About 90% of adults have had exposure to this virus, which may remain inactive for years. HSV is transmitted through contact with fluid from a person’s mouth. Most people have had their first infection during childhood or early adolescence. Depending in part on which of several different strains of HSV type I caused the original infection, a corneal infection varies in duration, severity, and response to treatment.

Herpes simplex eye disease usually occurs in only one eye and HSV infection of the cornea rarely spreads to the other eye. Spreading the infection to another person is unlikely. It is important to remember that herpes simplex eye disease is not usually caused by HSV type II, the sexually transmitted herpes. Sexual transmission of herpes eye disease is extremely rare.


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

  • Too much exposure to sunlight

  • Eye injury

  • A fever

  • Increased physical or emotional stress

  • A reaction to certain foods or medicines

Sometimes the cause of attacks is unknown. HSV eye infections can recur often in some people. These repeated infections can cause serious damage to the cornea if not appropriately treated.


Symptoms of herpes simplex eye disease may include:

  • Decreased vision

  • Redness

  • Tearing

  • Irritation

  • Light sensitivity

  • Inflammation of the eye

  • Blisters or ulcers on or near the eyelid


The symptoms listed above may not necessarily mean that you have herpes simplex keratitis. However, if you have a history of herpes simplex eye disease and experience one or more of these symptoms, contact your ophthalmologist or our office for a complete eye exam.


Antiviral eye medications are commonly used to treat herpes simplex and may need to be applied as frequently as six times a day. At times it may be necessary to scrape the surface of the cornea, patch the eye, or use a variety of medications. Medications can also be prescribed to help prevent the recurrence of herpes eye infections.


In case of severe scarring and vision loss, a corneal transplant may be required. It is very important to consult your ophthalmologist before beginning any treatment since some medications may worsen the disease.

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Schedule an appointment with us online or call us at (408) 358-3932.

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