Herpes Viral Infections of the Eye

  • Medical Author:
    Patricia S. Bainter, MD

    Dr. Bainter is a board-certified ophthalmologist. She received her BA from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, and her MD from the University of Colorado in Denver, CO. She completed an internal medicine internship at St. Joseph Hospital in Denver, CO, followed by an ophthalmology residency and a cornea and external disease fellowship, both at the University of Colorado. She became board certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology in 1998 and recertified in 2008. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Dr. Bainter practices general ophthalmology including cataract surgery and management of corneal and anterior segment diseases. She has volunteered in eye clinics in the Dominican Republic and Bosnia. She currently practices at One to One Eye Care in San Diego, CA.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

What parts of the eyes are susceptible to herpes viruses?

All the parts of the eye are susceptible. When any part of the eye is affected, it is referred to as herpes ophthalmicus.

The cornea is most often affected by HSV and HZV. Infection or inflammation of the cornea is known as herpetic keratitis. But these viruses can also affect the skin of the eyelids, the uveal tissue (iris and choroid), and the retina. For this reason, a thorough eye exam is recommended to assess the extent of eye involvement.

Who is at risk for herpes infections of the eyes?

Although a very large percentage of the population (85% or more) carries the HSV-1 virus, not everyone who carries the virus gets an eye infection.

When a person carrying the virus becomes immunocompromised (for example their immune system becomes weakened) due to HIV, medications (steroids, chemotherapy), age, and perhaps stress, the virus is more likely to become "active" and incite an outbreak that may include an eye infection.

However, in many (if not most) cases of HSV keratitis, the frequency of eye infections appears to be random and not necessarily associated with episodes of stress or immune weakness. In fact, studies have suggested that the particular subtype of HSV-1 virus that an individual acquires has as much to do with the frequency of eye infections as the individual's immune system.

What is the incubation period for ocular herpes?

The incubation period (the time between acquiring the virus and the appearance of ocular symptoms) can range from a few days to several decades.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/27/2017

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