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Finger Infection: Viral (Herpetic Whitlow)

What is a viral finger infection?

Infection of one or more fingers with a virus can cause an infection called herpetic whitlow.

What is the cause?

The viruses that also cause cold sores are usually the cause of a viral finger infection. The viruses are called herpes simplex. Most often the virus starts in a child’s mouth and then enters the fingers through a break in the skin. For example, a child’s finger might get infected when a child sucks a thumb or other finger.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • 1 or more blisters in a cluster on the fingertips
  • Redness
  • Painful and swollen fingers

How is it diagnosed?

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

How is it treated?

The infection usually gets better without special 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 your child’s healthcare provider's instructions.

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.

The fluid in the blisters is infectious. Cover the blisters with a bandage. You can also cover the bandage with clothing (such as gloves or socks) to protect others at school or to keep your child from spreading the virus to other parts of their body during sleep.

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
  • What 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 avoid biting the nails or sucking the fingers, especially when there’s a cold sore present.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-09-17
Last reviewed: 2012-05-30
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.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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