Finger Infection: Viral (Herpetic Whitlow)

What is a viral finger infection?

Herpetic whitlow is a painful infection of one or more fingers.

What is the cause?

Herpes simplex viruses, which also cause cold sores and genital ulcers, are usually the cause of herpetic whitlow. They can infect your finger through a break in the skin, such as a torn cuticle. Your finger might get infected if you put your finger in your mouth when you have a cold sore or fever blister.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • 1 or more blisters in a cluster on the fingertips
  • Redness, swelling, and pain in 1 or more fingers

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may also have blood tests or a swab of the fluid from the sore to see what is causing the infection.

How is it treated?

The infection usually gets better without treatment.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medicine. One form of the medicine is put on the skin. You may also need to take antiviral medicine by mouth to keep the blisters from coming back.

The infection should get better in 2 to 4 weeks. However, the virus stays in the body and so the infection could come back. Usually repeat infections are milder and heal more quickly.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
  • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.

The fluid in the blisters can spread the infection if it touches other parts of your body or other people. Cover the blisters with a bandage. You can also cover the bandage with clothing (such as gloves or socks) to keep the virus from spreading.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent a viral finger infection?

The virus is usually spread from other parts of the body. The best way to prevent the infection is to avoid biting your nails or putting your fingers in your mouth, especially when you have a cold sore.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-22
Last reviewed: 2014-11-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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