Herpes eye infection and blindness?

Originally Published: January 22, 1999 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 23, 2009
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Dear Alice,

This question is in reference to herpes and the eyes. Can one become blind due to herpes infection of the eyes? Also, how should one clean one's hands when one comes into contact with herpes? Soap or some other antibacterial type cleanser?

Dear Reader,

The wet, moist, mucus membranes of our bodies, including the eyes, are highly attractive and hospitable to the herpes virus. Herpes infection of the eyes, known as ocular herpes, affects about 50,000 Americans each year and may cause blindness if left untreated. But rest assured it is not transmitted via eye sex — thankfully you can still safely make steamy eyes with someone across with room without worry.

Most commonly, the type of herpes that infects eyes is Herpes Simplex Virus I (HSV-1), the same type that causes cold sores on the mouth. Like other forms of herpes, the ocular variety is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, whether on another part of your body or someone else's. If you come in contact with open sores, good hand-washing (and resisting rubbing your eyes) can be crucial in preventing the spread of the virus to your peepholes. The American Medical Association recommends washing hands with anti-bacterial soap and warm water if you touch any open sores. For detailed tips on proper hand washing techniques, see Handwashing Dos and Don'ts.

Some symptoms of ocular herpes include eye irritation, redness, sores, swelling, tearing, recurrent eye infections, and sensitivity to light. If you experience some or all of these symptoms and suspect you may have come into contact with herpes, it would be a great idea to see a health care provider. Columbia students can make an appointment with Primary Care Medical Services by calling x4-2284 or by logging in to Open Communicator. If you are diagnosed with ocular herpes, beginning treatment with anti-viral pills, eye drops, and ointments will help protect the cornea's superficial layer, or epithelium, from damage. Ocular herpes is a recurrent viral infection. Blindness can result when infection goes un-treated and herpes spreads from the superficial layer of the eye into the deeper layer of the cornea. In severe cases, an ophthalmologist may treat ocular herpes by scraping away the infected corneal cells performing surgery to remove scarring in the cornea. Although there is no cure for ocular herpes, timely treatment can help control outbreaks and prevent damage to the eye.

Eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and managing stress are all basic and effective ways of keeping your immune system strong enough to help keep herpes outbreaks and other illnesses at bay.

Hope this helps you see the facts clearly.

Alice