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Herpes Keratitis: Viral Infection Of The Cornea

Herpes keratitis is a common viral infection of the cornea caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) or herpes zoster virus.

Herpes Simplex Keratitis

It is also popularly known as eye herpes.

Eye herpes causes the cornea to become inflamed, is extremely painful and often affects vision.

Most people carry some sort of herpes virus in their bodies.

When a person gets infected with a herpes virus, it continues to exist in the body (within the nerves) indefinitely, though often in a dormant state.

It is then reactivated by several causes such as stress and menstruals. 

Herpes simplex virus is the most common type of viral keratitis. This virus is well-known for causing cold sores or blister around the mouth.

If the simplex virus becomes activated in the eye, the virus will attack and slowly ‘eat’ away the cornea causing ulceration of the cornea

Herpes simplex virus may also cause blood vessels grow into cornea, causing vision impairment

It is estimated that there are 50,000 cases of ocular infection that is caused by herpes simplex virus every year and it is one of the most frequent causes of blindness.

The herpes zoster virus  (the virus responsible for chickenpox and shingles) may also cause keratitis if shingles grow on the face area.

Recurrence is likely even if you have recovered from eye herpes as the herpes virus is never really eradicated.

Symptoms And Signs

It is important to get herpes keratitis treated first hand to prevent corneal scarring.

See your eye doctor immediately if you experience the following symptoms:

  • Blurry vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Extreme pain in eyes
  • Redness
  • Swelling of the affected eye
  • Excessive tearing

Causes Of Herpes Keratitis

Once you are infected with the herpes simplex virus, it lays dormant in your body. This type of keratitis occurs if the herpes virus is activated in the eyes.

Causes that reactivate the virus include: 

  • Stress
  • Fever
  • Heat
  • Menstruation
  • Reduce immunity functions
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight
  • Trauma to the body (such as injury or surgery)
  • Certain medications such as steroids

Infection can also be transferred to the eye by touching an active lesion (a cold sore or blister) and then your eye.

Treatment For Herpes Keratitis

This condition is typically treated with antiviral eye drops which have to be applied up to 8 to 9 times a day.

Sometimes, oral antiviral medication is given instead depending on the needs of the patient.  

In severe cases, your doctor may recommend the use of corticosteroid drops to reduce inflammation and risks of permanent scarring.

Do think twice about this option as it may have severe side effects.

In order to speed up recovery, your eye doctor may gently rub the affected area of the cornea to remove infected cells and viral antigens that contribute to the keratitis.

If your condition does not respond well to the treatments and permanent scarring occurs, a corneal transplant may be needed if the scar affects normal vision.

For individuals who are prone to recurrences of herpes keratitis, your doctor may place you on a long-term regimen of oral antiviral medication to reduce frequency.


As there is no complete cure for herpes virus, it is important to know how to prevent recurring outbreaks. Here are some preventive measures which you can do:

  • Do not touch your eyes after touching your cold sores or blister. The infection can be transferred.
  • See an ophthalmologist immediately during the early symptoms of recurrence. 
  • Contact lenses increase the risk of getting viral keratitis. If you have recurring cases of viral keratitis, stop wearing contact lenses now.
  • Avoid using steroid eye drops unless you are under close supervision of an eye doctor. They can cause the virus to multiply if not used carefully.

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