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Herpetic whitlow (whitlow finger)

Herpetic whitlow (whitlow finger) is a painful infection of the finger caused by the herpes virus. It's easily treated but can come back.

Check if you have herpetic whitlow

A herpetic whitlow can appear anywhere on your finger, but it usually affects the top of your finger (fingertip).

Symptoms of herpetic whitlow include:

  • swelling and pain in your finger
  • blisters or sores on your finger
  • skin becoming red or darker than your usual skin tone
A finger, red and swollen around the fingertip with a small blister at the side of the nail
A red, swollen and painful finger
Credit:

Scott Camazine / Alamy Stock Photo

https://www.alamy.com/herpetic-whitlow-infection-of-finger-image3568453.html?pv=1&stamp=2&imageid=761D42AF-356E-4F8E-8FB8-78A3640FA705&p=9949&n=0&orientation=0&pn=1&searchtype=0&IsFromSearch=1&srch=foo%3dbar%26st%3d0%26pn%3d1%26ps%3d100%26sortby%3d2%26resultview%3dsortbyPopular%26npgs%3d0%26qt%3dA44K46%26qt_raw%3dA44K46%26lic%3d3%26mr%3d0%26pr%3d0%26ot%3d0%26creative%3d%26ag%3d0%26hc%3d0%26pc%3d%26blackwhite%3d%26cutout%3d%26tbar%3d1%26et%3d0x000000000000000000000%26vp%3d0%26loc%3d0%26imgt%3d0%26dtfr%3d%26dtto%3d%26size%3d0xFF%26archive%3d1%26groupid%3d%26pseudoid%3d%7bA883FDE5-7F3D-4472-81F5-B61111916852%7d%26a%3d%26cdid%3d%26cdsrt%3d%26name%3d%26qn%3d%26apalib%3d%26apalic%3d%26lightbox%3d%26gname%3d%26gtype%3d%26xstx%3d0%26simid%3d%26saveQry%3d%26editorial%3d1%26nu%3d%26t%3d%26edoptin%3d%26customgeoip%3d%26cap%3d1%26cbstore%3d1%26vd%3d0%26lb%3d%26fi%3d2%26edrf%3d0%26ispremium%3d1%26flip%3d0%26pl%3d

A finger with red lumps under the skin filled with fluid
Blisters or sores on your finger
Credit:

DR P. MARAZZI/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

https://www.sciencephoto.com/media/257432/view

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if you think you have herpetic whitlow

Treatment is more effective if started early and will help stop the infection spreading.

Information:

Coronavirus update: how to contact a GP

It's still important to get help from a GP if you need it. To contact your GP surgery:

  • visit their website
  • use the NHS App
  • call them

Find out about using the NHS during coronavirus

Treatment from a GP

You may be prescribed antiviral tablets if you see a GP within 48 hours of your symptoms showing.

Antiviral tablets can help your finger to heal more quickly.

If you cannot see a GP within 48 hours, the infection will go away without treatment within 2 to 4 weeks. But there are things you can do yourself to help.

Things you can do to help herpetic whitlow

Do

  • keep your finger clean and covered with a dressing

  • take painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to ease the pain

Don’t

  • do not touch your finger – the infection can spread easily

  • do not touch other parts of your body or other people with your infected finger

  • do not try to drain the fluid – this can cause the infection to spread

  • do not use contact lenses – you could spread the infection to your eye

If your infection gets worse

Go back to the GP if your infection gets worse or if you have a very high temperature (you feel hot and shivery).

Causes of herpetic whitlow

Herpetic whitlow is caused by a virus called herpes simplex. You can get it if you touch a cold sore or blister of another infected person.

You're more likely to get herpetic whitlow if you've had cold sores or genital herpes.

You may also get it if you have a weakened immune system – for example, if you have diabetes or you're having chemotherapy.

The first time you have herpetic whitlow will usually be the most severe.

Herpetic whitlow can come back

Once you have the virus, it stays in your body for the rest of your life.

The condition is rare, but if you get it once you can get it again. For example, it might come back if you have a cut or sore on your finger, or if you're feeling stressed or unwell.

There's not much you can do to prevent herpetic whitlow but it can be treated in the same way if it comes back.

Page last reviewed: 6 November 2020
Next review due: 6 November 2023