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Home / Herpes Virus / Whitlow finger signs and symptoms

Whitlow finger signs and symptoms

Learn more about herpetic whitlows

A whitlow finger or herpetic whitlow is a painful and contagious infection that occurs in the fingertip.

It is most commonly caused by the herpes virus, which is the same virus that causes cold sores and genital herpes. It is uncommon but those who get it may get it more than once.

Close up of man holding his fingertips

It’s a mild condition which goes away by itself in a couple of weeks. However, antiviral treatment can treat the whitlow significantly quicker. Keep reading to learn more about herpetic whitlows and how to treat them.

What are whitlows?

Whitlows are infections that occur in the fingertips. There are two main types of whitlow.

A staphylococcal whitlow is the most common type. It is a bacterial infection in the fingertip and nail which usually occurs if there is a cut to the fingertip.

A herpetic whitlow is less common. Unlike the latter, a herpetic whitlow is caused by the herpes simplex virus and is usually unrelated to an injury or bacteria.

What causes a herpetic whitlow?

As the name suggests, herpetic whitlow is an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

The herpes virus is an STI (sexually transmitted infection) that you catch from unprotected sexual intercourse including anal or oral sex. The virus causes fluid-filled blisters to appear in the genital area (genital herpes) or around the mouth (cold sores).

The virus is very contagious when symptoms are present. So, there are high rates of people living with the herpes virus across the globe.

How do you get herpetic whitlow?

Whitlow finger occurs when the virus spreads to the finger during an active bout of herpes symptoms.

It spreads in several ways:

  • touching a cold sore or genital sore on yourself or someone else
  • sucking your thumb or biting your nails during an active cold sores bout

When you catch the herpes virus, it stays in your body forever. So, it’s not uncommon for the infection to happen multiple times.

Risk factors for herpetic whitlows

Whitlows are more likely to occur when your immune system is down. This is because the immune system is weakened and cannot fight the virus and prevent symptoms.

Common triggers for whitlows include:

  • illness
  • chronic illness
  • being immunocompromised (e.g. having diabetes or HIV)
  • excessive stress
  • hormonal imbalances
  • excessive sun exposure
  • surgery
  • mental illness

You’re also more likely to be exposed to HSV if you’re a medical or dental professional.

What are the symptoms of whitlow finger?

The symptoms most often occur at the fingertip. However, sometimes, symptoms can occur in the toes.

Like other genital herpes and cold sores symptoms, whitlow symptoms occur in stages. The infection will start as a painful burning sensation. Then, the fingertip will swell and become red.

Male swollen whitlow finger

Then, one or multiple fluid-filled blisters will appear. They are typically quite small and very painful. Once the blisters have burst, they will eventually scab over and heal.

You may experience other symptoms, such as:

  • swollen lymph nodes in the armpit or elbow area
  • a fever
  • red streaks surrounding or leading away from the affected area

What’s the difference between fungal nails and whitlow fingers?

Fungal nail infections are caused by the candida fungus. While they also cause pain and discomfort, they differ in several ways.

Fungal nail infections mainly affect toenails. The fungus causes the nail to discolour, thicken, become brittle and flake off.

Occasionally, fungal nails may become infected and cause swelling and pus to build up in the affected area. However, these are not the initial symptoms.

How do you get rid of a whitlow?

In most cases, you don’t need to treat a whitlow. It will go away by itself. However, taking prescription antiviral treatment can significantly speed up recovery time.

Antiviral tablets such as Aciclovir, Famciclovir (Famvir) and Valaciclovir (Valtrex) can all treat herpetic whitlow. Using an antiviral treatment within 48 hours of symptoms appearing is the most effective way of reducing recovery time.

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If you have a staphylococcal whitlow, you may need antibiotics to treat it. In the most severe cases, the whitlow will need to be drained.

You can also take over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen to help with the pain and swelling of either type.

Always consult your doctor or pharmacist before using any treatment.

Can I pop a whitlow?

You mustn’t burst or drain any pus from a herpetic whitlow. This is because the herpes virus is highly contagious. Popping a whitlow may risk spreading the virus to others or could cause symptoms in other areas.

A staphylococcal whitlow, on the other hand, can be drained. However, this should be done where necessary and only by a medical professional.

How do I prevent a whitlow?

You should take measures to prevent reinfection and the spreading of the virus to others.

  • Do not drain any pus from the whitlow.
  • Keep your finger clean and dressed.
  • Do not touch the affected finger.
  • Do not touch others with the affected finger.
  • Do not use contact lenses - you could spread the infection to your eye.
Close up of man wrapping plaster around fingertip

Doing so will ensure the virus doesn’t spread and you improve your recovery time.

When should I go to the doctor?

If you have never had a whitlow before, make an appointment with your GP so they can diagnose your symptoms.

If your symptoms do not improve or the whitlow doesn’t go away, you should go back to your doctor.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 08-07-2024
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