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
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.
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 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: 06 November 2020
Next review due: 06 November 2023