What is Herpetic Whitlow?

Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Herpetic whitlow is a painful hand infection or lesion that typically involves one or more fingers. It is usually caused by herpes simplex virus 1, but occasionally it is caused by herpes simplex virus 2. It usually afflicts health care workers, such as dentists. The symptoms can be treated, and the condition usually lasts several weeks.

Herpetic whitlows can be caused by touching a cold sore.
Herpetic whitlows can be caused by touching a cold sore.

People who are affected by herpetic whitlow typically complain of pain in the fingers and swelling of one or more fingers. There are sometimes lesions on the fingers as well. The thumb and the index fingers are usually the affected fingers, although any finger may show signs of herpetic whitlow. Many people with the condition have a fever before the pain and swelling appears in the fingers.

The people most at risk of herpetic whitlow are health care workers who are exposed to genital or oral secretions that contain the herpes simplex 1 or 2 viruses. In addition, people who care for others who have lesions on their fingers from herpetic whitlow are at risk. Children are sometimes affected, particularly if they suck their thumbs. Also, people with a compromised immune system are at risk for infection and even for rare complications.

Medical attention may be required to treat the symptoms of herpetic whitlow, although little can be done to treat the disease itself. It is considered to be a self-limited disease, meaning it will be around for a limited time or run a limited course. Acyclovir may be prescribed to help shorten the duration of the symptoms and prevent recurrence of the condition. Antibiotics typically are only recommended if a secondary super-infection results from the lesions.

The best way to prevent herpetic whitlow is to avoid exposure to the disease. People who work in the health care industry can protect themselves by washing their hands and using gloves. In addition, people with lesions should be cautioned about spreading the virus to other people, specifically if they are caring for children.

Complications are rare for people affected by herpetic whitlow, especially if their immune systems are not compromised. In addition, most people are expected to fully recover from the virus in three to four weeks. Patients should be advised that the disease can easily be spread to other areas of the body and to other people if care is not taken to limit secretions. As with any medical condition, any questions or concerns should be addressed by a medical professional.

Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Dee is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a B.A. in English Literature, as well as a law degree. Dee is especially interested in topics relating to medicine, legal issues, and home improvement, which are her specialty when contributing to wiseGEEK.

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