You've probably heard that the herpes simplex virus (HSV) can cause open sores on the face and genitals but did you know the infection can be transferred to the eye(s)? This viral infection is called herpetic keratitis and can cause open sores (or eye ulcers) on your eyes. There are two major types of HSV:

  • Type I - most common form, infecting the face, causing cold sores or fever blisters
  • Type II - sexually transmitted form, infecting the genitals
While both types can spread to the eye and cause infection, type I is the most frequent cause of herpetic keratitis. The infection may be transferred by touching your eye after touching an active lesion such as a cold sore or fever blister.

Causes of herpetic keratitis

Type I is transmitted by skin contact and is very contagious. When herpes simplex infects the eye, it can affect eyelids, conjunctiva (transparent membrane on the front of the eye that also lines the inside of the eyelids) and the cornea. The virus stays dormant living in nerve cells of your eyes or skin and can be reactivated by:

  • Stress
  • Exposure to the sun
  • Fever
  • Trauma
  • Menstruation
  • Medications

Symptoms of herpetic keratitis

Common symptoms of herpetic keratitis may include:

  • Eye pain
  • Eye redness
  • Blurred vision
  • Tearing
  • Eye discharge
  • Sensitivity to light
Check with your eye care professional if you have herpes simplex and experience any of the symptoms above. If the infection is on the outer surface of your cornea it may heal without scarring. If the infection involves deeper layers of the cornea, it may lead to scarring of the cornea which may result in loss of vision and even blindness.

Treatment of herpetic keratitis

There is no complete cure for herpes at this time, and the virus may be reactivated (see above). Your eye care professional will determine a course of action depending on the severity of your symptoms. This may include:

  • Topical medication
  • Oral antiviral medication
  • Gently scraping the surface of the eye to remove diseased cells in the infected area (known as corneal debridement)