Eye herpes, also known as ocular herpes, is an eye infection caused by the herpes simplex 1 virus. This particular simplex also causes cold sores on the lips and mouth. The virus causes scarring of the cornea, and inflammation of the eyes, sometimes referred to as an eye cold sore.
The most common form of eye herpes results in a corneal infection, which is known as herpes simplex keratitis. Only the top layer of the cornea is affected by herpes simplex keratitis, and healing usually takes place without scarring. However, there are other, more serious, types of eye herpes, including stromal keratitis and iridocyclitis.
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Stromal keratitis is the result of a deep corneal infection, which moves beyond the outer layers of the cornea, resulting in scarring, vision loss, or even blindness. Although this form of eye herpes is rare, it is the most common cause of corneal scarring leading to blindness in the United States, according to the National Eye Institute.
Iridocyclitis is the most serious type of eye herpes, causing inflammation of the iris and surrounding tissues. Severe light sensitivity, eye pain, redness, and blurred vision are common symptoms. Iridocyclitis is a form of uveitis, or inflammation of the eye’s uvea, which affects the deeper layers of the eye.
All forms of eye herpes are transmitted through direct contact with the virus, either from another person who is having an outbreak, or self-contamination. Touching a cold sore on the lips or mouth, and then touching the eyes can cause an eye herpes infection. Once the infection has entered the blood stream, it may remain dormant for years before an outbreak is experienced, making it difficult to determine when and how the infection is contracted.
Once an initial eye herpes outbreak is experienced, it has a 50 percent chance of reoccurring. This could happen within weeks, or it may be several years before another outbreak. Symptoms typically occur in one eye at a time, but in some cases, both eyes may be affected simultaneously.
Treatment of eye herpes varies, depending on the location of the infection in the eye. Treatment is determined on an individual basis, since some options could further aggravate the condition. Antiviral drugs, physical removal of infected cells, steroids, and surgery are common treatment options.
For superficial infections, eye drops or ointments are usually administered, and sometimes oral medications are used. A doctor may also remove the infected cells from the cornea through a process known as debridement. A corneal spatula is used to gently scrape away the infection, and then a soft contact lens is placed over the eye until it is healed.
Steroid and antiviral drops are used to treat more deeply embedded instances of eye herpes, such as stromal keratitis. These treatments reduce inflammation of the eye, and prevent scarring. Surgery is performed if corneal scarring is present, and other methods of treatment do not clear the problem. A corneal transplant is needed to restore vision, if the scarring is permanent. There is no cure for eye herpes, but these treatment methods may help reduce outbreaks and symptoms.