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What Is Ocular Herpes?

Herpes of the eye, or ocular herpes, is a recurrent viral infection that's caused by the herpes simplex virus. It's the most common infectious cause of corneal blindness in the U.S.

Previous studies show that once people develop ocular herpes, they have up to a 50 percent chance of having a recurrence (meaning that ocular herpes may come back again). This second flare-up could come weeks or even years after the first outbreak.

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Symptoms of ocular herpes can include the following:

  • A painful sore on the eyelid or surface of the eye
  • Inflammation of the cornea

Reoccurring herpes symptoms are believed to include these:

  • Fever
  • Stress
  • Sunlight
  • Eye injury


Prompt treatment with anti-viral drugs helps to stop the herpes virus from multiplying and destroying epithelial cells. However, the infection may spread deeper into the cornea and develop into a more severe infection called stromal keratitis, which causes the body's immune system to attack and destroy stromal cells.

Stromal Keratitis

Stromal keratitis is more difficult to treat than less severe ocular herpes infections. Recurrent episodes of stromal keratitis can cause scarring of the cornea, which can lead to loss of vision and possibly blindness.

Other Facts About Ocular Herpes

Like other herpetic infections, herpes of the eye can be controlled. An estimated 400,000 Americans have had some form of ocular herpes. Each year, nearly 50,000 new and recurring cases are diagnosed in the United States, with the more serious stromal keratitis accounting for about 25 percent.

In one large study, researchers found that recurrence rate of ocular herpes was 10 percent within one year, 23 percent within two years, and 63 percent within 20 years.

The National Eye Institute supported the Herpetic Eye Disease Study, a group of clinical trials that studied various treatments for severe ocular herpes.