The herpes simplex virus is a common virus that affects many people. This virus can cause cold sores, but it can also cause sores to appear on the eyes. When it affects a person’s eyes, the condition is known as ocular herpes or herpetic eye disease.

Eye herpes is a concern because it can have uncomfortable symptoms. In rare instances, eye herpes can affect the deeper layers of a person’s eyes and their vision.

In this article, we examine the types of herpes that can affect someone’s eye and the symptoms that may occur. We also look at the diagnosis and treatment options available for eye herpes.

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Eye herpes is also known as ocular herpes or herpetic eye disease.
Image credit: Powerfloh, 2013

Two major herpes simplex virus types exist. They are:

  • Type 1: Type 1 herpes virus commonly affects the face and is responsible for symptoms that include “fever blisters” or cold sores.
  • Type 2: Type 2 herpes virus is the sexually transmitted form of the virus. While this type mainly causes symptoms on the genitals, it can also affect the eyes.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, type 1 herpes simplex virus is the most common cause of eye infections.

Most often, a person will be infected with the herpes simplex virus by skin to skin contact with someone who already has the virus.

It often lays dormant in the nerve cells and can travel along the nerves to the eye when activated.

Most people have been infected with the virus at some point in their lives, but not everyone gets symptoms from the virus.

When a person gets herpetic eye disease herpes, they can experience a variety of symptoms. These can be in both eyes, but often one eye is affected more than the other.

Some of the symptoms depend on what part of the eye is affected. Examples of these symptoms include:

  • feeling as if something is in the eye
  • headache
  • light sensitivity
  • redness
  • tearing

Sometimes a person may also experience herpes sores on top of the eyelids. These may resemble a rash that has blistering. The blisters will form crusts that usually heal within 3 to 7 days.

If the herpes virus affects the cornea, the inside of the eye, or the retina, a person may find their vision is reduced.

Typically, eye herpes does not cause a lot of pain, even though a person’s eye may look painful.

The symptoms of a herpes simplex virus affecting the eye may be very similar to those of the herpes zoster virus, which causes chickenpox. However, a herpes zoster infection is more likely to result in a rash that has a distinct pattern that occurs in only one eye.

Another condition that can have symptoms similar to that of herpes zoster is pink eye, which is also known as conjunctivitis.

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A doctor may prescribe an antiviral eye drop.