Eye infections (such as ocular herpes) is caused by the type 1 herpes simplex virus, which is a very common viral infection that causes cold sores around the lips and mouth. Rarely, this virus can also infect the eye. When this occurs, the virus can cause significant pain and carries the risk of permanent damage to the front surface of the eye. An ocular infection from type 1 herpes simplex virus, or HSV1, is a serious condition that warrants immediate evaluation from your eye doctor. Continue reading to learn more about this condition.
How Does Ocular Herpes Affect the Eyes?
HSV1 is a common viral infection, and frequently it lays dormant within the body and causes no problems. It is estimated that over half of Americans have been infected with the virus, and many of them never have any complications associated with the infection. It’s possible for the disease to lay dormant in the body for years at a time, and it may never be activated. In the instance an activation of HSV1, the virus is activated from its dormant resting place and begins actively infecting the body. While the exact reason for activation is unknown, it is suggested that stress is a significant risk for viral activation. Trauma, excessive sun exposure, and simultaneous infections can also increase the likelihood of a virus outbreak. It is important to note that infection with Type 1 HSV is completely different from Type 2 HSV, which is a sexually transmitted infection that infects the genital regions.
When the HSV1 virus becomes activated and is infecting the body, it can infect the eye in several locations and can vary in severity. Most frequently, the front surface of the eye is affected. The most common ocular infection from HSV1 is called “epithelial keratitis” in which the outermost layer of the cornea is affected. Epithelial keratitis causes disruptions in the sensitive epithelial tissue of the cornea, which leads to significant pain and discomfort. If the infection affects deeper levels of the cornea, the infection is called “stromal keratitis,” which is sight-threatening due to the risk of permanent corneal scarring. Beyond the front surface of the eye, HSV1 can cause dangerous inflammatory reactions of the iris, ciliary body, and retina. Any ocular manifestation of a herpes outbreak carries risks to ocular health and needs to be evaluated by an eye care professional.
Diagnosing and Treating Herpes Simplex Keratitis Eye Infections
No matter what layer of the cornea is affected, herpes simplex keratitis will cause significant symptoms which should be immediately addressed. Pain, redness, and extreme light sensitivity are very common symptoms of an ocular herpes infection. There may also be watery discharge, and if the infection is occurring centrally in the cornea, vision may be blurry. By closely evaluating the front of the eye with a microscope, an optometrist can diagnose herpetic keratitis and begin treating it immediately. In cases of an HSV1 infection affecting the cornea, an antiviral eye drop will be prescribed that must be used multiple times throughout the day. This will prevent inflammation associated with the infection and help protect the ocular tissue. Your doctor will need to see you back shortly after treatment is initiated to ensure that things are healing appropriately. Following resolution of the ocular infection, your doctor may even prescribe oral medications to take daily in order to prevent future ocular outbreaks of HSV1.