I Suddenly Developed Itchy, Painful Bumps All Over My Face—And Doctors Misdiagnosed Me for Weeks

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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The outbreak led me to get in touch with a dermatologist I had recently interviewed for The Eczema Podcast, which I created. I sent him photos, but he struggled to pinpoint what it was. I decided to try an urgent care walk-in clinic. The doctor there thought it might be folliculitis, which is an infection of hair follicles. That doc didn’t treat me for it, assuming the issue would go away on its own. As the days progressed, however, the bumps grew into big clusters and spread to my eyelid, causing it to look inflamed and puffy. It was uncomfortable to blink or even open my eye fully. I decided to try another walk-in clinic that week, where I was told it was either an allergic reaction or pimples.

All the while, the clusters got more raw, irritated, and painful. I remember thinking that I looked like a monster; I felt like my appearance would scare people. About a week after those misdiagnoses, I went to my family doctor, who then referred me to a dermatologist. When she saw my skin, the first thing she said was, “Oh, this is definitely eczema herpeticum.” She said my immune system was compromised from the stress I was experiencing both as a result of pregnancy and my job. Those things, along with having HSV-1, ultimately led to the outbreak. I felt very relieved to know what was going on, but was also worried. The clusters were close to my eyes, so the derm was concerned about the risk of blindness.

My doctors prescribed antivirals and antibiotics to manage my symptoms. Although I was concerned about the effect they’d have on my baby, they reassured me the drugs were pregnancy-safe. That first outbreak lasted about two and a half weeks. However, my skin still looked pretty rough as I recovered—my husband had to help me put medication on because I couldn’t even look in the mirror. Finally, the blisters started to dry up, crust over, and flake off.

I didn’t have another outbreak while pregnant, and, thankfully, my labor and delivery went smoothly. After that point, though, I experienced recurring, monthly outbreaks of eczema herpeticum for a year. While they were never as severe as the first one, I still had some issues. For instance, one eyelid looked entirely different than the other at one point—I couldn’t put makeup on because it was too uncomfortable. During an outbreak, I also tried to avoid spreading the virus to my son, doing my best to prevent him from touching my face. If either of us accidentally did so, I would wash or disinfect his or my hands right away. [HSV-1 can be very serious in newborns and is the reason you shouldn’t ever kiss a baby with an active infection, especially if you have a cold sore.]

Now that I’m in my late-30s, I only have mild flare-ups every few months. (I treat them with l-lysine, which is sometimes used to manage herpes in general.) I also prioritize self-care, and have learned the importance of reducing my stress and slowing down. It’s easy to get in the grind of working a lot, but you need to take care of yourself and your healing first. If I don’t do that, I can’t take care of my kids, including the youngest, who also has eczema.

I’m proud that I made it through that really difficult, wild ride. I am also grateful to have been able to persevere and have the strength to keep going and push through it even when my symptoms were traumatic and scary. In light of my experience, I encourage anyone else facing eczema herpeticum to make sure they have good support, trust their judgment, and remember that they’re still beautiful.

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