Herpes, Neonatal

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  • Herpes Simplex Infection of Newborn
  • Herpesvirus Hominis Infection of Newborn

Disorder Subdivisions

  • None

General Discussion

Neonatal herpes is a rare disorder affecting newborn infants infected with the herpes simplex virus (HSV), also called herpesvirus hominis. In most instances, a parent with oral or genital herpes transfers the disorder to an offspring before, during, or shortly after birth. Symptoms vary from mild to severe depending on which of two types of herpes simplex virus is involved. Type 1 HSV is responsible for the more severe cases of the disorder while patients with Type 2 HSV usually present with milder symptoms.

Another way of classifying this disorder depends on probable outcomes (prognosis). Using prognosis as the classifying principal yields three forms:

1. disseminated neonatal herpes infection

2. central nervous sytem herpes in the neonate

3. mucocutaneous and ocular herpes


Disseminated Neonatal Herpes Infection (about 25% of cases)

In this form, the disorder spreads to involve organs throughout the body.

Viral infections may spread to the lungs (pneumonitis), the liver (hepatitis), or the circulatory system (disseminated intravascular coagulation) that may lead to infections of the brain covering (encephalitis), rashes on the skin (exanthem), and inflammation of the cornea and the tissue surrounding it (keratoconjunctivitis).

The disorder usually becomes obvious between 9 and 11 days after birth. However, presentation may be delayed for as long as 30 days.

Central Nervous Sytem Herpes in the Neonate (about 35% of cases)

This form is usually indicated by irritability, seizures, spiking temperatures (thermal instability), poor feeding and a bulging soft spot (fontanel) on top of the head. Such signs will suggest that tests of the infant's central spinal fluid (CSF) be made. Some 25%-40% of the cases will be positive for HSV cultures. Other signs indicated by CSF tests include an abnormally high number of cells in the CSF (pleocytosis) as well as high concentrations of protein (proteinosis).

The disorder is usually evident between five and nine days after birth.

Mucocutaneous and Ocular Herpes (about 40% of cases)

Patients with this form of the disorder present with the disease localized to the skin, mouth, and/or eyes. Laboratory tests, including liver and chest X-rays, are normal with no evidence of internal organ (visceral) involvement or neurological deficits. Cultures for the presence of the HSV will be positive, as will tests for the HSV antigen.

The disorder usually becomes obvious between 15 and 17 days after birth. However, presentation may be delayed for as long as 30 days.


Neonatal herpes is caused by an infection of the newborn by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

In 80% to 90% of cases, the disease is acquired during the period beginning with the fifth month of pregnancy and extending to the twenty-fifth day after birth (the perinatal period) via an infected maternal delivery tract or, if the fetus is in the uterus, by an ascending infection. Infection may occur even if the membranes associated with birth are intact, i.e. before the sac is broken. An asymptomatic mother who shows no signs of herpes infection may breast-feed an infant with milk that contains the herpes virus, thus infecting the infant. Rarely, an attendant at the birthing process may also transfer his or her infection to the newborn child if sterile precautions are not adequate.

Affected Populations

Neonatal Herpes is a very rare disorder. It affects about 1 in 5,000 to 7,500 live births. During their first year of life, these infants usually develop antibodies against the Herpes virus. Only malnourished infants, those with an impaired immune system, or otherwise weakened infants tend to carry the infection after one year.

Infants born to a mother with a first time Herpes infection late in her pregnancy are at higher risk to develop Neonatal Herpes than infants of mothers with recurrent Herpes infection. In the first case the mother has not yet developed antibodies against the virus which would ordinarily protect her baby.

Standard Therapies


The diagnosis of neonatal herpes is difficult and requires the physician to maintain a high level of skepticism and wariness. Frequently, neither parent is aware that he or she is carrying the virus. HSV infection must be considered for any neonate presenting with non-specific symptoms such as fever, poor feeding, lethargy and/or seizure. Any rash accompanyied by fluid-filled blisters (vesicles) should be cultured for HSV, and because such tests take days before the results are known, anti-viral treatment should be started.


If a pregnant woman or her sexual partner is carrying herpes virus, their physician should be notified as soon as possible in anticipation of the baby becoming infected during the birth process. Baby and mother may be cultured at birth. If tests are positive, treatment of the virus can be started immediately after birth.

When a mother shows signs of a genital herpes infection, delivery by cesarian section is advised.

Acyclovir (Zovirax) and vidarabine (Ara-A, Vira-A), are the drugs most commonly used to treat herpes virus infections. If treatment is started early enough, the disorder usually remains restricted to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, and does not progress to the more serious forms.

Investigational Therapies

Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at www.clinicaltrials.gov. All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.

For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:

Tollfree: (800) 411-1222

TTY: (866) 411-1010

Email: prpl@cc.nih.gov

For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:




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