It begins with infection of epithelial cells on the surface of the eye and retrograde infection of nerves serving the cornea. Primary infection typically presents as swelling of the conjunctiva and eyelids (blepharoconjunctivitis), accompanied by small white itchy lesions on the surface of the cornea. The effect of the lesions varies, from minor damage to the epithelium (superficial punctate keratitis), to formation of dendritic ulcers. Infection is unilateral, affecting one eye at a time. Additional symptoms include dull pain deep inside the eye, mild to acute dryness, and sinusitis. Most primary infections resolve spontaneously in a few weeks. Healing can be aided by the use of oral and topical antivirals.
Subsequent recurrences may be more severe, with infected epithelial cells showing larger dendritic ulceration, and lesions forming white plaques. The epithelial layer is sloughed off as the dendritic ulcer grows, and mild inflammation (iritis) may occur in the underlying stroma of iris. Sensation loss occurs in lesional areas, producing generalised corneal anaesthesia with repeated recurrences. Recurrence can be accompanied by chronic dry eye, low grade intermittent conjunctivitis, or chronic unexplained sinusitis. Following persistent infection the concentration of viral DNA reaches a critical limit. Antibody responses against the viral antigen expression in the stroma can trigger a massive autoimmune response in the eye. The response may result in the destruction of the corneal stroma, resulting in loss of vision due to opacification of the cornea. This is known as immune-mediated stromal keratitis.