Herpetic Whitlow(Herpes on Hands) Causes and Treatment

Have you ever noticed a painful, blister-like sore on your finger or thumb? If so, you might be dealing with a condition called herpetic whitlow. This viral infection, caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), can be both uncomfortable and concerning. In this article, we’ll discuss causes, symptoms, and treatment options for herpetic whitlow. This can help you navigate this common yet often misunderstood condition.

What is Herpetic Whitlow?

Herpetic whitlow, also known as whitlow finger or digital herpes simplex, is a painful infection that typically affects the fingers or thumbs. It occurs when the herpes simplex virus enters the skin through a cut or break. This will lead to the formation of fluid-filled blisters.

There are two main types of herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2. While HSV-1 is more commonly associated with oral herpes (cold sores) and HSV-2 with genital herpes, either strain can cause herpetic whitlow.

Herpes on Hands
Herpes on Hands Causes and Treatment

Understanding the Herpes Simplex Virus

The herpes simplex virus is a highly contagious virus that can cause various infections, including oral herpes, genital herpes, and herpetic whitlow. Once a person is infected with HSV, the virus remains in their body for life, often lying dormant in nerve cells until triggered to reactivate.

Factors that can trigger HSV reactivation include:

  • Stress
  • Illness or fever
  • Hormonal changes
  • Weakened immune system
  • Exposure to sunlight or extreme temperatures

When the virus reactivates, it travels along the nerve pathways to the skin, causing the characteristic blisters and sores associated with herpes infections.

Symptoms to Watch For

The signs and symptoms of herpetic whitlow can vary from person to person, but they typically include:

  • Pain and tenderness in the affected finger or thumb
  • Swelling and redness around the infected area
  • Fluid-filled blisters that may rupture and form scabs
  • Fever and swollen lymph nodes (in some cases)
  • Itching or tingling sensations before the appearance of blisters
  • Difficulty moving the affected finger due to pain and swelling

These symptoms usually appear 2-20 days after exposure to the virus and can last for 2-4 weeks.

Stages of Herpetic Whitlow

Herpetic whitlow typically progresses through several stages:

  • Prodromal stage: In the early stages of infection, you may experience itching, tingling, or burning sensations in the affected area. This stage can last for several hours to a few days.
  • Blister stage: Painful, fluid-filled blisters develop on the infected finger or thumb. The blisters may be small and clustered or large and solitary.
  • Ulceration stage: The blisters rupture, leaving open sores that may be painful and tender to the touch.
  • Crusting stage: As the sores begin to heal, they will form scabs or crusts. This stage can last for several days to a few weeks.
  • Healing stage: The scabs fall off, revealing new skin underneath. Some people may experience residual pain, itching, or sensitivity in the affected area for a few weeks after the sores have healed.

How Herpetic Whitlow Spreads

Herpetic whitlow is highly contagious and can spread through direct contact with infected skin lesions. Some common ways the virus is transmitted include:

  • Touching a cold sore or genital herpes sore and then touching your finger
  • Having direct contact with the skin lesions of someone who has herpetic whitlow
  • Engaging in activities that expose your fingers to the herpes virus, such as dental work or contact sports
  • Sharing personal items, such as towels or utensils, with someone who has an active herpes infection

Certain professions, such as healthcare and childcare workers, may be at a higher risk of contracting herpetic whitlow due to their increased exposure to the virus.

Risk Factors for Herpetic Whitlow

While anyone can develop herpetic whitlow, some factors may increase your risk of contracting the virus:

  • Having a weakened immune system due to conditions like HIV/AIDS, cancer, or diabetes
  • Engaging in activities that expose your hands to the herpes virus, such as contact sports or dental work
  • Working in healthcare or childcare settings
  • Having a history of oral or genital herpes
  • Experiencing stress or fatigue, which can weaken your immune system

Diagnosing Herpetic Whitlow

If you suspect you have herpetic whitlow, it’s essential to see a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis. Your doctor will typically examine the affected area and ask about your symptoms and medical history.

In some cases, your provider may take a sample from the blister for laboratory testing to confirm the presence of the herpes simplex virus. This can be done through a viral culture, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, or a Tzanck smear.

Differential Diagnosis

Herpetic whitlow can sometimes be mistaken for other conditions that cause similar symptoms, such as:

  • Paronychia: A bacterial or fungal infection of the skin around the fingernail
  • Felon: A bacterial infection of the fingertip pulp
  • Herpangina: A viral infection that causes blisters in the mouth and throat
  • Hand, foot, and mouth disease: A viral infection that causes blisters on the hands, feet, and mouth

Your healthcare provider will consider these and other potential diagnoses when evaluating your symptoms and determining the best course of treatment.

Treatment Options

While there is no cure for herpetic whitlow, several treatment options can help manage symptoms and speed up the healing process:

  • Antiviral medications: Oral antiviral drugs, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir), can help reduce pain and promote healing. These medications are most effective when started within the first 48 hours of symptom onset.
  • Pain relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers, like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), can help alleviate discomfort associated with herpetic whitlow.
  • Wound care: Keeping the affected area clean and covered with a bandage can prevent secondary bacterial infections and promote healing. Avoid popping or draining the blisters, as this can worsen the infection.
  • Stress management: Since stress can trigger herpes outbreaks, finding ways to manage stress through relaxation techniques, exercise, or therapy may help reduce the frequency and severity of herpetic whitlow episodes.

10 Natural Ways to Remove Herpetic Whitlow(Herpes on Hands)

1. Baking Soda

One of the best highly-available home treatments for herpes is baking soda. It can neutralize your skin’s pH levels and help you remove dead skin cells.

Baking soda is also very efficient at relieving the pain and itchiness of the accompanying sores. You’ll have to make baking soda paste to get the most out of this remedy.


  • Mix one tablespoon of baking soda with equal water or olive oil to create a paste.
  • Apply the solution to herpes.
  • Let it dry naturally.
  • Rinse it off using cold water.
  • Repeat when experiencing itchiness or swelling.

Tip: Don’t reuse the cotton ball after it comes in touch with herpes to avoid cross-contamination.

2. Apple Cider Vinegar

An excellent natural disinfectant, apple cider vinegar (ACV) makes a perfect home remedy for treating herpes. It is a powerful astringent capable of repairing damaged skin tissue. It is also rich in anti-inflammatory properties that help in reducing the swelling caused by herpes.


  • Mix a teaspoon of ACV with an equal amount of water.
  • Use a cotton ball to apply the mixture to the affected areas.
  • Change cotton balls after each use.
  • Repeat the treatment two times per day.

Top benefits of ACV treatment:

  • It provides a soothing effect and relieves pain.
  • It provides relief from itching and burning sensations.
  • Kills the virus.

Tip: ACV’s acid nature can cause harm when applied to raw wounds. If you suffer from a severe infection, you might experience a burning sensation using vinegar. In that case, rinse the area with water and dilute your vinegar solution.

3. Turmeric and Aloe Vera

These two ingredients make one of the top remedies for herpes on hands when used together. Aloe vera is an excellent antiseptic and soothing agent capable of curing various infections.

On the other side, Turmeric is also a great antiseptic agent and can heal blisters and wounds quickly.


  • Secure a fresh aloe vera leaf for the best effects. Squeeze the gel out of the leaf by cutting it into it.
  • Mix the gel with a teaspoon of organic turmeric powder.
  • Use a clean tool or finger to apply the gel to herpes. Make sure to clean it after each application.
  • Let the paste dry for an hour, then rinse it off using cold
  • Repeat up to 3 times per day. You should achieve the desired results in a week or so.

4. Olive Oil and Garlic

Another excellent home remedy mix is made with olive oil and garlic. They are both loaded with properties beneficial to our health.

Garlic is a natural detoxifying and anti-inflammatory agent that can quickly reduce swelling and counter the effects of herpes. As it can be intense and harsh, it performs best when used with olive oil, contributing to the treatment by providing soothing effects.

How to:

  • Peel three cloves of garlic and chop them into small bits.
  • Simmer them in a few tablespoons of olive oil until the garlic blackens.
  • Strain the garlic and allow the oil to cool down to body temperature.
  • Apply the oil to the herpes outbreaks.
  • Repeat the treatment twice per day.

5. Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil is an effective medicine for herpes on the hands due to its soothing and pain-relieving properties. It has long been used for treating various skin conditions and is often an indispensable ingredient in body-care products.

Preparing organic tea tree oil solution:

  • Add 3 – 5 drops of the oil to a cup of warm water. Ensure the mixture doesn’t get in your eyes because it can irritate them.
  • Dip some cotton in the mixture and apply it to the herpes blisters.

Alternatively, you can also use this solution to gargle if you’re experiencing ulcers in your mouth.

6. Cold Compress

Ice or cold compress is yet another effective remedy for herpes. Ice is a universal treatment when it comes to inflammation and swelling.

When applied to the wound, ice helps control the swelling and reduce the burning sensation. It also prevents the fluid-filled bumps from accumulating more water and bursting.

When applying an ice pack on herpes, ensure no direct touch between the wounds and the ice. If water makes it inside the wound, it might cause infection. To prevent this from happening, wrap the ice cubes in a plastic bag.

7. Licorice Root Powder

Licorice powder is rich in anti-viral properties, which make it an excellent herpes fighter. It can also help you build your immunity when mixed with warm water and consumed internally. Nevertheless, applying licorice directly to the wounds has fantastic benefits and will help you treat herpes in no time.

How to do it?

  • Mix one teaspoon of licorice powder with just enough water to form a paste.
  • Spread the paste over the infected areas.
  • Let it stay on for around 60 minutes.
  • Rinse with cold water and repeat twice per day.

Note: Avoid this treatment if you’re suffering from high blood pressure. Licorice root may cause it to rise.

8. Lemon Balm

As a member of the mint family, lemon balm offers instant pain relief and reduced itching when applied to wounds. Its rosmarinic and phenolic acids provide a soothing effect and ensure that herpes goes down.


  • Mix 2 – 3 teaspoons of lemon balm into a cup of warm water.
  • Use cotton balls to apply the solution to your wounds.
  • Repeat the method up to 3 times daily, and ensure you always use clean cotton.

Tip: To prevent herpes outbreaks, lemon balm should be consumed internally. You can add a few drops to clean water and drink it daily to avoid herpes.

9. Hydrogen Peroxide

As a disinfectant and a soothing agent, hydrogen peroxide can control the virus outbreak and treat its effects. By providing itching relief and boosting wounds’ healing process, hydrogen peroxide makes it to the top of home remedies for herpes on hands.

  • Pour a few teaspoons of 3% hydrogen peroxide into a bowl. If your wounds are open, mix in an equal amount of water.
  • Take a clean cotton ball.
  • Dip it in the solution and gently apply it to the blisters.
  • Repeat daily until the wounds are gone.

Tip: Avoid this treatment if you’re suffering from severe raw wounds.

10. Peppermint

Last but not least, peppermint tea is capable of destroying the herpes virus and alleviating its effects. It’s been proven to soothe pain and reduce inflammation. Drink peppermint tea daily when suffering from an infection.

Alternatively, you can mix one drop of peppermint oil and one teaspoon of water. Apply the solution to the affected areas multiple times a day.

Preventing the Spread of Infection

To prevent spreading herpetic whitlow to other parts of your body or other people, follow these tips:

  • Wash your hands frequently: Washing your hands with soap and warm water is one of the best ways to avoid hand herpes infection. Make sure to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, and ensure all areas are covered. After washing, dry your hands with a clean towel or let them air dry.
  • Avoid touching your hands to your face: When you touch your hands to your face, you transfer any virus that may be present on your hands directly to your face. When the virus comes into contact with the mucous membranes of your face, it can easily enter your body and cause an infection.
  • Disinfect surfaces regularly: Herpes can be transferred from inanimate objects such as surfaces, utensils, and towels. To reduce your risk of infection, make sure to clean and disinfect any surfaces that you come into contact with regularly.
  • Wear protective gloves: When you are unable to avoid contact with objects that may be contaminated with the herpes virus, wearing protective gloves can help to reduce your risk of infection. Make sure to change your gloves often and wash your hands after you take them off.
  • Avoid sharing utensils: Sharing utensils can easily spread the herpes virus. Make sure to keep all utensils that you use separate, and avoid using utensils that have been used by someone else.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have active herpes sores: Herpes is highly contagious, and it can easily be transmitted through direct contact with an infected person. To reduce your risk of infection, avoid close contact with people who have active herpes sores.
  • Get vaccinated: Vaccination is one of the best ways to protect yourself against the herpes virus. Make sure to ask your healthcare provider whether you should get vaccinated for herpes.

When to Seek Medical Attention?

While herpetic whitlow often resolves on its own within a few weeks, there are some situations where you should seek prompt medical attention:

  • If you have a weakened immune system due to conditions like HIV/AIDS, cancer, or diabetes
  • If the infection spreads beyond your finger or becomes increasingly painful and swollen
  • If you develop a high fever or other severe symptoms
  • If you experience frequent recurrences of herpetic whitlow
  • If you’re pregnant, herpetic whitlow can pose risks to the fetus

Coping with Recurrent Outbreaks

For some people, herpetic whitlow can be a recurring problem. While subsequent outbreaks are usually less severe than the initial infection, they can still be frustrating and painful.

If you experience frequent recurrences, your healthcare provider may recommend suppressive therapy with daily antiviral medications to reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks.

Additionally, practicing good hand hygiene, managing stress, and protecting your hands from cuts and scrapes can help minimize the risk of future herpetic whitlow episodes.

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