We usually associate the herpes virus with blisters (cold sores) around the mouth or in the genital area, however, you should be aware that herpes can infect the eye as well, causing blisters, scarring and chronic inflammation in the eye area. The eye herpes virus is mostly associated with sexually transmitted herpes, meaning herpes simplex type 1. Once a person gets the infection with a herpes virus, it will remain in the body for the person’s entire life and will re-activate occasionally when triggered by stress, fever, surgeries or sunburn.
In the industrialized nations, eye herpes is the most common infectious cause of corneal blindness, with an estimated 500,000 cases of ocular herpes diagnosed each year in the US. It is also the leading cause of blindness in one eye. Thus, the diagnosis is important and necessary because adequate treatment can prevent blindness caused by eye herpes.
Eye herpes can be easily acquired by having contact with the saliva or nasal secretions from an infected person, even if they are not showing symptoms. The virus will enter the body through the nose or mouth and move along the nerves until it reaches the eye. The affected eye will have excessive tearing (watery discharge), redness, foreign body sensation, blurry vision and pain/ocular discomfort in the area. Due to the various, non-specific symptoms, the eye doctors often miss the diagnosis of eye herpes during the initial stage of this disease.
Eye herpes can cause a wide range of symptoms, ranging from mild, simple infections to blindness. There are several forms of eye herpes:
Herpes keratitis occurs when the virus affects the cornea. This infection is more superficial and usually heals without scarring.
Herpes stromal keratitis is characterized by a deeper infection of the cornea (affecting both superficial and deeper layers). As a result, this type of infection can lead to scarring and sometimes blindness. Scientists believe that a late immune response is likely associated with this form of eye herpes, which is also the form that is mostly linked with blindness in the US.
Herpes iridocyclitis affects the iris and the surrounding tissue and is characterized by severe inflammation, sensitivity to light, redness, blurred vision and pain
Finally, herpes retinitis is an infection affecting the retina. Depending on the form of eye infection, the treatment consists of antiviral eye drops or antiviral pills, antibiotics, therapeutic contact lens or steroid medication. In the cases where the drug therapy fails and the virus causes impaired vision due to the scarring, corneal transplantation surgery is often effective. It should be noted that herpes of the eye left untreated, has about 40 to 50% chance to re-occur, and further damage the eye. If you have some of the symptoms mentioned above or a history of cold sores, you should seek medical advice for further investigation and treatment, if necessary.