Medscape is available in 5 Language Editions – Choose your Edition here.


Herpetic Whitlow

  • Author: Michael S Omori, MD; Chief Editor: Steven C Dronen, MD, FAAEM  more...
Updated: Aug 22, 2016


Herpetic whitlow is an intensely painful infection of the hand involving 1 or more fingers that typically affects the terminal phalanx.[1] Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) is the cause in approximately 60% of cases of herpetic whitlow, and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) is the cause in the remaining 40%.

Adamson first described herpetic whitlow in 1909, and in 1959, it was noted to be an occupational risk among health care workers.[2]



As in other mucocutaneous herpetic infections, herpetic whitlow is initiated by viral inoculation of the host through exposure to infected body fluids via a break in the skin, most commonly a torn cuticle. The virus then invades the cells of the dermis and subcutaneous tissue, and clinical infection ensues within a matter of days.

In children, HSV-1 is the most likely causative agent. Infection involving the finger usually is due to autoinoculation from primary oropharyngeal lesions as a result of finger-sucking or thumb-sucking behavior in patients with herpes labialis or herpetic gingivostomatitis.

Similarly, in health care workers, infection with HSV-1 is more common and usually is secondary to unprotected exposure to infected oropharyngeal secretions of patients. This easily can be prevented by use of gloves and by scrupulous observation of universal fluid precautions.

In the general adult population, herpetic whitlow is most often due to autoinoculation from genital herpes; therefore, it is most frequently secondary to infection with HSV-2.

Subsequent to the initial exposure, an incubation period of 2-20 days is common. Although a prodrome of fever and malaise may be observed, most often initial symptoms are pain and burning or tingling of the infected digit. This usually is followed by erythema, edema, and the development of 1- to 3-mm grouped vesicles on an erythematous base over the next 7-10 days. These vesicles may ulcerate or rupture and usually contain clear fluid, although the fluid may appear cloudy or bloody. Lymphangitis and epitrochlear and axillary lymphadenopathy are not uncommon. After 10-14 days, symptoms usually improve significantly and lesions crust over and heal.

Viral shedding is believed to resolve at this point. Complete resolution occurs over subsequent 5-7 days.

As is typical of other herpetic infections, herpetic whitlow is characterized by a primary infection, which may be followed by a latent period with subsequent recurrences. After the initial infection, the virus enters cutaneous nerve endings and migrates to the peripheral ganglia and Schwann cells where it lies dormant. The primary infection usually is the most symptomatic. Recurrences observed in 20-50% of cases are usually milder and shorter in duration.




United States

Annual incidence is estimated at 2.4-5.0 cases per 100,000 population.


Mortality related to herpetic whitlow can be presumed to be negligible.

Morbidity is related primarily to bacterial superinfection or to iatrogenic complications due to a misguided incision and drainage resulting from incorrect diagnosis of the infection as a bacterial paronychia. These complications may include delayed resolution, increased incidence of bacterial superinfection, and, rarely, systemic spread and the development of herpes encephalitis.


Males and females are affected equally by herpetic whitlow.


Toddlers and preschool children are most likely to engage in thumb-sucking or finger-sucking behavior; therefore, they are susceptible to herpetic whitlow if they have herpes labialis or herpetic gingivostomatitis.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Michael S Omori, MD Attending Staff, Emergency Medicine Residency, St Vincent Mercy Medical Center; Acting Director, Pediatric Emergency Center, Mercy Children's Hospital; Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, University of Toledo Medical Center, The University of Toledo College of Medicine

Michael S Omori, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Eric L Weiss, MD, DTM&H Medical Director, Office of Service Continuity and Disaster Planning, Fellowship Director, Stanford University Medical Center Disaster Medicine Fellowship, Chairman, SUMC and LPCH Bioterrorism and Emergency Preparedness Task Force, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Surgery (Emergency Medicine), Stanford University Medical Center

Eric L Weiss, MD, DTM&H is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, American Medical Association, American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Southeastern Surgical Congress, Southern Oncology Association of Practices, Southern Clinical Neurological Society, Wilderness Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Steven C Dronen, MD, FAAEM Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine, LeConte Medical Center

Steven C Dronen, MD, FAAEM is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Robin R Hemphill, MD, MPH Associate Professor, Director, Quality and Safety, Department of Emergency Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine

Robin R Hemphill, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

  1. Wu IB, Schwartz RA. Herpetic whitlow. Cutis. 2007 Mar. 79(3):193-6. [Medline].

  2. Klotz RW. Herpetic whitlow: an occupational hazard. AANA J. 1990 Feb. 58(1):8-13. [Medline].

  3. Robayna MG, Herranz P, Rubio FA, Pena P, Pena JM, Gonzalez J, et al. Destructive herpetic whitlow in AIDS: report of three cases. Br J Dermatol. Nov 1997. 137(5):812-5. [Medline].

  4. El Hachem M, Bernardi S, Giraldi L, Diociaiuti A, Palma P, Castelli-Gattinara G. Herpetic whitlow as a harbinger of pediatric HIV-1 infection. Pediatr Dermatol. 2005 Mar-Apr. 22(2):119-21. [Medline].

  5. Nikkels AF, Pierard GE. Treatment of mucocutaneous presentations of herpes simplex virus infections. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2002. 3(7):475-87. [Medline].

  6. Cunha BA, ed. Antibiotic Essentials. 7th ed. Sudbury, Mass: Physician's Press; 2008. 109.

  7. Weisman E, Troncale JA. Herpetic whitlow: a case report. J Fam Pract. 1991 Nov. 33(5):516, 520. [Medline].

  8. Patel R, Kumar H, More B, Patricolo M. Paediatric recurrent herpetic whitlow. BMJ Case Rep. 2013 Jul 31. 2013:[Medline].

  9. Hoff NP, Gerber PA. Herpetic whitlow. CMAJ. 2012 Nov 20. 184 (17):E924. [Medline].

All material on this website is protected by copyright, Copyright © 1994-2016 by WebMD LLC. This website also contains material copyrighted by 3rd parties.