Disseminated Herpes Infection

Female doctor examining newborn baby in incubator. Blend Images - ERproductions Ltd / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

Most herpes infections only cause local pain, or no symptoms at all. However, in rare, cases herpes can cause full body illness. This is referred to as disseminated herpes. Disseminated diseases are diseases that are spread throughout the body. 

Disseminated herpes is most commonly seen as a complication of neonatal herpes. However, theses infections can also occur in adults. A disseminated herpes infection may appear simply as lesions at multiple skin sites.

That is not always an emergency. Such infections are considerably more severe when the infection spreads to the central nervous system.

When herpes infects the central nervous system (CNS), it can cause encephalitis or meningitis. These diseases involve swelling of the brain and spinal cord. Left untreated, disseminated herpes infections that affect the CNS have high fatality rates. Fortunately, mortality and long term complications can be reduced by prompt treatment with acyclovir.

Disseminated herpes infection can be detected by using PCR to look for herpes viruses in fluid from the spinal cord. However, since this type of testing can lead to false negatives, and a lack of prompt treatment can be fatal, many doctors will presumptively treat with acyclovir based on a patient's symptoms. Symptoms of CNS herpes may include headache, vomiting, and other neurological signs.

Infants with disseminated herpes infections usually begin to show symptoms within 5-9 days after birth.

These symptoms may include seizures, trouble breathing, irritability, and jaundice. Disseminated herpes in infants has a mortality rate of 85 percent if the infection remains untreated.

Disseminated herpes infections can be caused by varicella zoster virus and other human herpes viruses. It's not only caused by the herpes simplex viruses that cause genital and oral infections.

In all cases, disseminated infections may be more likely to occur in immunocompromised individuals, such as those with advanced AIDS


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