Can You Get a Cold Sore on Your Finger? Herpes Expert Explains
It's rare, but not unheard of.
Cold sores are most at home on the mouth, but they’re also known to pop up in other places now and again. Fortunately for anyone who has ever worried about getting a cold sore on the hand, sexual health experts explain that the condition is rare and differs from sores in or around the mouth or genitals in one major way.
Cold sores are typically caused by the herpes simplex virus, which comes in two types. HSV-1 typically infects the mouth area, and HSV-2 usually affects the genitals, though occasionally, HSV-1 can take root in around the genitals if it’s passed through oral sex. Terri Warren, R.N., who specializes in herpes, explains that these viruses usually like to stay in their respective homes, but occasionally they do stray to other parts of the body. Occasionally, both the HSV-1 and HSV-2 strains can manifest themselves on a finger, a condition called herpetic whitlow.
Warren tells Inverse that this condition is rare, and the resulting sores, aren’t cold sores exactly, but rather just infected lesions. Estimates suggest that there are about 2.4 cases of herpetic whitlow per 100,000 people per year. But even these rates do cause some concern for people who come into her clinic. “People worry all the time, ‘if I masturbate will I get virus on my finger and get whitlow’,” she says. “That’s a worry, but it very rarely happens that way.”
What Does Herpetic Whitlow Look Like?
Typically, herpetic whitlow causes red inflammation around the finger and some oozy sores — but seriously, those sores are nothing compared to the rare STI donovanosis. It’s also important to note that these symptoms alone don’t necessarily distinguish a sore that’s caused by the herpes virus from one that’s caused by something else — like a bacterial infection, which is called bacterial whitlow.
How Do You Get Herpetic Whitlow?
Most often, Warren says getting herpetic whitlow is actually a sign that you’ve touched a herpes outbreak, either on your body or on someone else’s — most likely on the mouth or genital area, which is where herpes virus prefers to dwell. Additionally, herpetic whitlow usually strikes when there’s already a break in the skin on the finger, like a hangnail for instance. Then if you touch a sore somewhere else, it is possible, though not likely, to end up with an HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection on the hand.
Warren adds that there is a difference between herpetic whitlow and a herpes outbreak elsewhere on the body. Until the outbreak shows itself, herpetic whitlow isn’t actually contagious. Herpes in the genital or oral regions, on the other hand, can shed the virus even when they aren’t flaring up.
Can You Spread Herpetic Whitlow?
“Herpetic whitlow is not infectious when the skin looks normal. The skin of the hand is too thick for the virus to shed, like it does on the mouth or the genitals,” she explains. “It can’t get out when there is no sore present.”
When there is a sore present, however, the virus is contagious. When that happens, take care not to touch other areas of the body — particularly the eyes, since this can cause herpes keratitis — a condition that is also not common. Unfortunately, there’s no way to totally rid the body of a herpes virus. But there are antiviral drugs that can help control the infection, and they even treat outbreaks as they occur
When it comes to herpetic whitlow, taking antiviral drugs like valacyclovir within the first 48 hours can shorten the duration of the outbreak, but it can also go away on its own over time. It may look a bit gross, but as far as sexually transmitted infections go, herpetic whitlow is pretty tame.