ORF is a viral skin disease that is spread from infected sheep or goats to humans.

The disease is also known as scabby mouth, thistle disease, contagious ecthyma, infectious labial dermatitis or contagious pustular dermatitis. It is not passed from human to human.

The ORF infection is usually confined to the top layer of your skin (known as epidermis). It most commonly appears on your hands or fingers, forearms or face, but not until 3 to 5 days after you have been in contact with the virus.

Small, painful, itchy red lumps will start to develop. The lumps will be up to 2-5cm in size and you may have more than one.

The condition progresses over a 3-6-week period, with the legions turning into pustules (small fluid filled bumps) or blisters that weep fluid, before crusting over.The lumps can be painful, but they will usually heal without leaving any visible scarring behind. 

You may also have:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever (high temperature)
  • Swollen lymph glands

ORF will usually clear up on its own after approximately six weeks, so medical treatment is not normally needed.

However, if the lesion is not healing on its own, if you develop a high temperature, or if the condition is causing you a lot of pain, you should see a doctor. It is also possible to develop a bacterial infection in one of the lesions, which will often need treatment with antibiotics.

ORF is more common in people who work with goats and sheep or carcasses of infected animals. It develops when skin that is broken or damaged comes into contact with an infected animal, or even contaminated equipment.

You should use good hygiene practices when coming into contact with sheep or goats. Wear gloves when handling animals if possible, wash your hands regularly and protect any area of skin that is broken or damaged.

It is possible to contract the condition more than once, but the subsequent infections may not be as pronounced and take less time to clear up.

There is no official ORF treatment as it will normally get better on its own after a period of around 6 weeks.

However, the lesions could become infected, so you will need to take steps to protect the area until it is fully healed. You should:

  • Keep the lesion dry and cover it with a waterproof bandage if getting the area wet.
  • Cover with a sterile dressing to prevent further infection at all other times.
  • When working with animals, keep the lesion covered and as protected as possible.

You should contact a doctor if:

  • The lesion does not heal or show any signs of improvement
  • The lesion becomes rapidly bigger or spreads
  • You have a fever
  • You are experiencing severe pain

In rare cases, the ORF infection may not heal on its own and you may need surgery to remove it. If it becomes infected with bacteria, a doctor will be able to assess the level of infection you have and may recommend antibiotics.

If you have a weakened immune system, for example, you have a chronic condition, it could lead to complications of ORF. These include:

  • Lots of blisters
  • Large, tumour-like lesions
  • A skin rash called erythema multiforme
  • Blistered skin disease, called bullous pemphigoid

If you are worried that you have been infected with ORF, or if the condition is not healing on its own, our GPs can help.

They are available 365 days a year and can look at the affected area over video consultation at a time that suits you. Book an appointment now.

Skin Care Articles