DON’T KISS MY BABY! The Danger Posed by Herpetic Whitlow

Herpetic Whitlow

New babies are irresistible, which is why so many people enjoying cuddling and kissing them. Although affection is important in any baby’s development, letting others kiss and cuddle your newborn is not always a good idea. Your baby’s not-yet-mature immune system is vulnerable to infection and one cause for concern is herpes, a virus that is easily transmitted through physical contact.

According to the March of Dimes, herpes affects less than one percent of all babies born yearly in the U.S., but complications from the infection can be serious and potentially fatal. It’s also not always easy to recognize who’s experiencing an outbreak or when they’re contagious

There are two types of herpes viruses, HSV-1 and HSV-2, and anyone can get either type of infection.  Most people are familiar with HSV-1 herpes, that manifests as a cold sore on or around the lips, but some types of herpes may not be easily identifiable or even visible.

Recognizing not-so-obvious herpes infections

Herpes infections can be genital, nasal, on your nipple (herpes mastitis), or result in the painful lesion on your fingers, known as a herpetic whitlow.

Herpetic whitlow occurs on the toes or on the nail cuticle, and is often contracted by health care workers, who are exposed to patients’ bodily fluids. Sixty percent of herpetic whitlow cases are caused by the HSV-1 virus. Adults who have been exposed to the HSV-2 virus can also contract herpetic whitlow and there have been cases of herpetic whitlow in thumb-sucking children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control 48% of all Americans were infected with HSV-1 and 12% with HSV-2 in 2015-16. After an initial infection with herpes, people can suffer multiple outbreaks. Although herpes outbreaks are most contagious when sores or blisters are visible, the virus can still be spread when people have no symptoms.

It’s important for people who are infected with any variety of herpes to avoid direct contact with newborns. If parents and caretakers who have herpes must handle a child, they should wash their hands thoroughly and cover the site of any active infections before touching the newborn. Since herpetic whitlow is found on the hands, people infected by this version of the herpes virus need to cover an active infection to avoid spreading the virus.

Learning the warning signs is important

The herpes virus can cause a variety of serious complications in infants. Herpes can lead to a brain infection called herpes encephalitis and be responsible for lasting physical and intellectual disabilities, seizures, vision and hearing loss. Because babies do not have well-developed immune systems, a herpes infection can spread to internal organs such as the liver and lungs. Without treatment, some babies can go into shock.

Protecting your baby

Knowing the symptoms of a herpes infection in a newborn can alert you to the need for immediate medical attention. A newborn infected by the herpes virus may start out with mild symptoms, such as a low grade fever or sudden indifference to food, but the symptoms can progress very quickly. If your baby develops any of the following symptoms, be sure to let your healthcare provider know:

  • Small sores or skin blisters especially around the eyes or mouth
  • Accelerated or rapid breathing
  • Jaundice
  • Seizures
  • Bleeding
  • Lethargy

If your healthcare provider diagnoses your newborn with herpes, antiviral medication can help keep the infection from spreading.

Here are some other ways you can protect your baby from herpes exposure.

  1. If you are pregnant and have herpes, discuss the condition with your doctor. Herpes can be passed on to a newborn during labor and delivery. If you are having an active outbreak at the time of your child’s birth, your doctor may suggest a c-section to minimize the chance of infection.
  2. If you have herpes mastitis, stop breastfeeding from that breast. Discuss alternatives with your healthcare provider or breastfeeding coach.
  3. If you have a herpes whitlow infection, cover it up.
  4. If you experience a herpes outbreak, ask your doctor about antiviral medication.
  5. Don’t let anyone with a cold sore kiss your baby. Herpes can also be transmitted through saliva.
  6. Everyone who comes in contact with your newborn should wash their hands thoroughly.
  7. Take your baby to the pediatrician between the first week and three weeks of time. Follow up with regular appointments and discuss any symptoms.
Joan MacDonald
Joan Vos MacDonald has written about health and fitness for newspapers, magazines and websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the author of two books on health-related topics, "Tobacco and Nicotine Dangers," for young adults, and "High Fit Home," a design book about fitness and architecture. She lives in upstate New York near her children and grandchildren.

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