What is herpetic eye disease?

Herpes simplex (the cause of "cold sores" or "fever blisters" on the lips and face) and herpes zoster (the cause of chickenpox or shingles) are two viruses that can occasionally affect the eyes. When this happens, the condition is known as herpetic eye disease.

Most people are exposed to these viruses during their childhood and carry the dormant (inactive) viruses in their bodies their entire lives. (In 1995 most children in the United States started receiving the herpes zoster vaccine so they will not carry the dormant virus.)

These two viruses are not the same virus that causes genital herpes (which is herpes simplex type 2) and herpetic eye disease is not regarded as a sexually transmitted disease.

  • Varicella zoster virus: When this virus affects the eye, it is called herpes zoster ophthalmicus.
  • Herpes simplex type 1: In the eye, it usually causes an infection of the cornea. This infection is called herpes simplex keratitis.

Although both of these problems are caused by a herpes virus, different medications are sometimes needed to treat the appearances of the disease.

How does herpetic eye disease develop?

Like many viruses, the herpes simplex 1 and varicella zoster viruses are actually present in most adults. The viruses in the herpes family usually live around the nerve fibers in humans without ever causing a problem. Occasionally, the viruses will start to multiply, or they will move from one area of the body to another, and that is when herpetic disease breaks out. This often happens when the immune system of the body is weakened by some other health problem.

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