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Finger Infection: Viral (Herpetic Whitlow)

What is a viral finger infection?

Herpetic whitlow is a painful infection of one or more fingers.

What is the cause?

Herpes simplex viruses, which also cause cold sores, are usually the cause of herpetic whitlow. Most often the virus starts in a child’s mouth and then spreads to the fingers through a break in the skin. For example, your child’s finger might get infected when he sucks his thumb or other finger.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • 1 or more blisters in a cluster on the fingertips
  • Redness, swelling, and pain in 1 or more fingers

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child's symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Your child may also have blood tests or a swab of the fluid from the sore to see what is causing the infection.

How is it treated?

The infection usually gets better without treatment.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medicine. One form of the medicine is put on the skin. Your child may also need to take antiviral medicine by mouth to keep the blisters from coming back.

The infection should get better in 2 to 4 weeks. However, the virus stays in the body and so the infection could come back. Usually repeat infections are milder and heal more quickly.

How can I take care of my child?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.

You can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for both fever and pain.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not give the medicine to your child for more than 10 days for any reason. Check with your healthcare provider before you give any medicine that contains aspirin or salicylates to a child or teen. This includes medicines like baby aspirin, some cold medicines, and Pepto-Bismol. Children and teens who take aspirin are at risk for a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
  • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Read the label carefully and give your child the correct dose as directed. Do not give more doses than directed. To make sure you don’t give your child too much, check other medicines your child takes to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, your child should not take this medicine for more than 5 days.

The fluid in the blisters can spread the infection if it touches other parts of your child's body or other people. Cover the blisters with a bandage. You can also cover the bandage with clothing (such as gloves or socks) to keep the virus from spreading.

Ask your child’s provider:

  • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
  • How long it will take for your child to recover
  • If there are activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
  • How to take care of your child at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them

Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent a viral finger infection?

The virus is usually spread from other parts of the body. The best way to prevent the infection is to keep your child from biting his nails or putting his fingers in his mouth, especially when your child has a cold sore.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-20
Last reviewed: 2014-11-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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