Yes, it’s true. You can have an infection in the eye caused by a Herpes virus. However, it may not be the type you think.
Most people think there is only one type of Herpes virus – the type that is classically spoken about when discussing sexual transmission. In reality, Herpetic viruses are a group of viruses. The types of diseases they cause, include Fever blisters (on your lips), Genital herpes, Mono, Shingles, and even Chicken Pox! These are all different types of herpetic viruses. The most common type to infect the eye is the same one that causes fever blisters, which is Simplex type 1. Herpes Simplex type 2 is the one that classically causes genital herpes.
Herpes virus type 1 is present in about 65% of all people living in the US (Xu et al., 2002). This virus most commonly remains dormant in the nerve root that innervates the facial structures (the trigeminal nerve – see below). You’ll notice in the diagram that the branches of this nerve pretty much travels to most areas of the face, including the lips, cheeks, nose, and eyes. When the virus becomes active, it can infect and inflame any of these areas.
When it infects the eye itself, it can cause pain, light sensitivity, blurry vision, red eye, conjunctivitis, and corneal dendritic ulcers. This is what a herpetic infection of the cornea looks like when it’s stained with yellow fluorecein:
These infections can resolve by using anti-viral pills prescribed by your doctor. Anti bacterial drops may also be prescribed to prevent a superinfection with a bacteria, as the cornea essentially has an open wound. The main issue with having an infection like this is the possibility of ending up with scarring and loss of vision. Even with treatment, it’s possible to be left with a corneal scar and dry eye, especially if it recurs multiple times. In more advanced cases, some patients will need a rigid contact lens, or even a partial or full corneal transplant, in order to regain clear vision. Sometimes your ophthalmologist my suggest prevention of a recurrence by keeping you on a low dose of antiviral pills.
So yes, you can get a herpetic infection in the eye. If you’ve ever had fever blisters on your lips and you have a red & painful eye, please see your ophthalmologist to rule out this infection. If caught early, you’ll avoid most – if not all – complications.