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Herpes Viral Infections of the Eye

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What are herpes viruses?

There are several members of the herpes virus family. They include herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), herpes zoster (HZV, also known as varicella-zoster virus or VZV), cytomegalovirus (CMV), and others.

What causes herpes eye infections?

Herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1) is the most common herpes virus to affect the eyes. This is the same virus that causes cold sores on the lips.

Varicella-zoster virus (VZV; herpes zoster), which causes chickenpox in childhood and shingles in adulthood, can also affect the eye. Cytomegalovirus causes eye disease in immunocompromised people, such as HIV-infected patients with low T cell counts.

Is ocular herpes contagious?

Herpes can be contagious. Live virus is found in the tears of people with active corneal herpes simplex and herpes zoster, as well as from skin vesicles in chickenpox and shingles rashes. Careful hand washing is important, particularly when coming into contact with unimmunized babies and children, as well as people with weakened immune systems.

How is ocular herpes transmitted?

In most cases, ocular herpes simplex is not directly transmitted from one eye to another. Instead, the virus is first acquired by direct contact but produces no initial signs or symptoms. The virus settles in the body's nervous system, where it remains in its latent, dormant state. Months or years later, the virus can reactivate and travel to the eye where it causes ocular herpes, or the lip, where it causes a cold sore.

In children, a small rash and pinkeye may be a sign of an initial direct infection of the eye by the herpes simplex virus.

Herpes zoster (varicella zoster) virus is most often acquired through the air during epidemics of chickenpox in childhood, after which the virus can sit dormant for decades before reactivating and producing shingles in the eye or elsewhere in the body.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/27/2017


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