Herpetic whitlow is a painful abscess that appears at the top of the finger, close to the fingernails. They are often called ‘finger cold sores’ or ‘digital herpes simplex’ because they are caused by herpes simplex virus infections. This is the same virus that causes cold sores to form, hence their alternative name.

This herpes simplex virus type is also responsible for a diagnosis (confirmed by a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR test) of other infections such as eczema herpeticum, erythema multiforme, and herpetic gingivostomatitis can all be caused by HSV infection and may even become recurrent herpes.

Perhaps your fingers have become swollen, red, and sore? If you do have Herpetic Whitlow, you’ll also have noticed small fluid-filled blisters that are red in color. These are typically the symptoms that you’ll experience if you do have ‘whitlow finger,’ but we’ll look at this in greater depth shortly.

Cold sores on fingers can be caused by either the HSV-1 and HSV-2 strains. If you currently have cold sores (HSV-1) or genital herpes (HSV-2), the virus can be passed from other parts of the body to your hands. You can also get it from other people by sharing objects, holding hands, touching your own (or someone else’s) genital area, etc. It’s a highly contagious condition.

You’re most at risk of getting the virus if your immune system has been compromised. This tends to happen when you’re tired and fatigued but, in the case of herpetic whitlow, it usually gets into your body through a small lesion on your finger or a crack in your fingernail.

The condition is more common among children than adults, perhaps due to the sucking of fingers/thumbs when they have the herpes simplex virus on their lips/mouth without realizing it. Not surprisingly, it’s also more common among healthcare and dental professionals.

What Are the Symptoms of Cold Sores on Hands?

It’s uncommon for cold sores to show up on the fingers without spreading from somewhere else on the body (a secondary infection). If you notice the symptoms, there’s a good chance you’ve already experienced them around the mouth, genitals or elsewhere on the body. You’ll normally become infected about 2 to 20 days after you’ve been exposed to the digital herpes simplex virus. Incubation periods vary considerably.

The primary infection, the first time it happens, tends to be worse. Interestingly enough, only about 1 in 5 people who experience a primary infection get visible blisters and sores. Recurrent infections, while still uncomfortable, tend to be more tolerable. Once infected by the virus, it’s with you for life. Some people experience an outbreak every few weeks, but others will never be affected again.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Small red blisters (1-3 mm) that are filled with fluid
  • Swelling, redness, and tenderness of the finger/thumb
  • Cause itchiness and irritation
  • A disproportionate amount of pain and discomfort

In addition to those common symptoms, some people may also experience things like muscle aches, fevers, red streaks (lymphangitis), etc. It’s important to remember that these cold sores are caused by a virus. That virus can affect the body in different ways.

How Do People Get Cold Sores on Fingers or Hands?

Most cases of cold sores on fingers are due to self-infection, known as autoinoculation. If you contract Herpetic Whitlow, the stages (and healing time) are similar to what you might experience with cold sores elsewhere on the body.

Here are the different stages:

  • Stage One: Tingling and itching a day or so before the appearance of blisters.
  • Stage Two: The formation of fluid-filled blisters.
  • Stage Three: Oozing, bursting blisters. These can cause painful and irritating sores.
  • Stage Four: Scabbing or crusting of blisters. This can cause both itching or cracking.
  • Stage Five: When the scab falls off, it’ll begin to heal.

Here’s further information on the different stages of a cold sore.

If you have a cold sore on your lips and touch it with your fingers, you’re putting yourself at risk for the sore to spread to the tips of the fingers. Additionally, if you touch someone else with an open sore, the same risk factors apply, but infection is far less common.

What Treatment Options Are Available?

Cold sores/herpetic whitlow goes away on its own when left untreated. However, if the blisters crack and burst open, they will become painful. Plus, you’re risking spreading the infection each time that they open and ooze. Treating whitlow finger quickly will minimize pain, reduce the healing time, and stop it from infecting other parts of the face/body.

It is a virus that will stay with you forever once it’s been contracted. According to the Mayo Clinic, over 90% of adults will test positive for this virus. However, some people will experience more symptoms and outbreaks than others. You may have the virus and don’t even know it.

The virus remains dormant most of the time. There is no cure for herpes virus HSV-1 or HSV-2. When you’re treating a cold sore, you’re removing the symptoms and trying to find a source of relief. Some of the best treatment options include creams and antiviral medications.

  • Your doctor may prescribe a week’s course of an antiviral drug called of acyclovir (200 mg), known as Zovirax.

Herpetic Whitlow symptoms

Preventing the Transmission of Finger Cold Sores

Yes, you can get cold sores on hands. More specifically, you’re more likely to get cold sores on the tips of fingers. They’re rarer than cold sores on the mouth, lips, etc. Because your hands are exposed to more touching, the risk of spreading the virus through viral shedding is much greater.

No matter what treatment option you choose, it is crucial to always first prevent the spread of the herpes simplex virus.

Here are some prevention techniques:

  • Quarantine the sore. Something as simple as petroleum jelly can provide moisture to the sore while creating a barrier. That helps it from splitting open and spreading.
  • Cover the sore with a light dressing. This prevents the virus from spreading. We often touch our face and eyes without realizing it. This also prevents drainage and possible spreading to an oral infection.
  • Don’t wear contact lenses until after the virus has completely cleared up.
  • If you have a sexually transmitted disease (STD), don’t make direct hand contact with your genitals. Should you have cold sores near the corners of the mouth/lip line, use a medicated cold sore patch to prevent the virus from spreading.

Take the proper precautionary measures for faster healing, and minimize the risk of the virus spreading. Keeping your hands away from open blisters can prevent cold sores appearing on the fingers. Find out how doctors treat cold sores with Acyclovir/Zovirax.

Medication to Reduce Spread and Infection Time

There are several medications to help with a finger cold sore to reduce frequency of recurrence and limit length of infection. Here are some medications:

  • Penciclovir
  • Famvir
  • Valtrex
  • Famciclovir
  • Valacyclovir

In addition, remember you can take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help with managing pain as well.