The notion that you can contract genital herpes from a toilet seat has been floating around for quite some time. Misguided sex-ed teachers, high school locker room talk, and the invention of social media have certainly not helped to clear up this herpes myth in the slightest. So, we figured we’d take the time to put this urban legend to rest once and for all.
Can you catch herpes from a toilet seat?
The quick answer is no. It is highly unlikely, even unheard of to catch herpes from a toilet seat. However, it’s not necessarily impossible. Let us explain.
How common is herpes?
The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STD) worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide levels of herpes involve more than 3.7 billion adults (younger than age 50) who carry the HSV-1 virus and another 417 million who carry HSV-2 in their bodies.1 Both oral herpes and genital herpes are highly contagious and passed almost exclusively through skin-to-skin contact with an active or open sore.
With that amount of the population in mind, do most people have herpes? Not to add more anxiety to the question, but the truth is, there’s no definitive answer as to how many people in the world are infected with herpes. Many infections come with only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1 in 6 individuals between the ages of 14 and 49 in the United States is infected with genital herpes.2 The WHO estimates that worldwide, about 67% of the population ages 50 and under is infected with HSV-1, which commonly causes oral herpes, and 11% of those ages 14 – 49 is infected with HSV-2, the common cause of genital herpes.3 So, in terms of percentages, over half of the population worldwide is infected with at least some form of the herpes virus.
How do you catch herpes?
Skin-to-skin contact will most obviously include sexual activity but it can also be something as innocent as a peck on the cheek or forehead. Keep in mind that babies are extremely susceptible to the herpes virus.
As adorable as they may be, it’s incredibly important to not kiss babies on the lips, head, cheek, hand, or anywhere else if you are living with the virus. Parents of little ones ought to be extra vigilant on this front as well to keep their babies safe. In fact, many adults who live with oral herpes contracted it during their infant or toddler years from infected adults who were not as careful.
However–and this is important–as easy as it is to transfer the herpes virus from one person to another, it’s worth noting that the virus cannot sustain itself outside the body. When separated from the body, the herpes virus doesn’t last long4 – it loses infectious strength within just two hours. After that time has passed, the virus is no longer a threat to anyone with whom it comes in contact.
Many herpes infections occur without any symptoms for months, years, and even a lifetime. For those that do experience symptoms of herpes, they’ll typically begin about 10 days after infection and include:
- Flu-like symptoms like fever, chills, muscle aches, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and nausea
- Development of blister-like sores around genitals or mouth, including in the vagina or on the cervix, penis, anus, buttocks, or inside of the thighs
These blisters will typically rupture, becoming sores that are quite painful, but will heal and dissipate within a few days. The first outbreak is usually the worst and, over time, your body will react to the infection more effectively, meaning recurrent outbreaks will be less painful and shorter in duration. If you are showing possible herpes symptoms, you should get tested immediately. If you are not showing symptoms but have potentially been exposed, getting tested is the best way to confirm if you have herpes.
How do you test for herpes?
Testing for herpes is not quite as simple as other STDs. Diagnosis can be difficult as medical providers somewhat rely on symptoms being present, which is obviously not doable for asymptomatic infections. When you visit a physician, they’ll usually examine any blisters or sores and take a sample or swab from one that is not already healing. These testing samples are the most accurate. For those who do not have any blisters or sores, blood tests are available, but the accuracy of results relies on timing. Getting tested too soon after infection may result in a false negative. To get accurate results from a blood test, the CDC recommends waiting at least 16 weeks after exposure.5
Can herpes go away on its own?
Unfortunately, herpes is a lifetime infection. Outbreaks will come and go, and medications are available to help reduce symptoms and speed up healing when they do happen. There are also suppressive therapies that can help lower the risk of transmitting the virus to a partner by over 90%, which is particularly useful for couples who want to have unprotected sex or are trying to get pregnant.6
How long does herpes live on a toilet seat?
Now let’s apply that to the initial urban legend of whether or not you can contract herpes from a toilet seat. To catch herpes from a surface like a toilet seat, conditions would need to be laboratory-level ideal.
An infected person would have to use the facilities and make sure that the seat came in direct contact with an open sore. They would then presumably leave the bathroom or stall and an uninfected person would need to walk in, and have skin contact with the precise viral area of the toilet seat.
All of this would have to happen exactly.
This unique scenario is not completely outside the realm of universal possibility, but it’s safe to say that it would be highly unlikely to catch HSV from a toilet. While public restrooms may not be among the most hygienic of places you’ll ever encounter, the idea that you might accidentally contract HSV-2 is a myth. The risk of catching herpes by way of a toilet seat or anything other than skin-to-skin contact isn’t worth the worry.
Other Common Herpes Questions
Can you get herpes from kissing? Yes, herpes infection can be spread by kissing. The risk is increased if the person has an active outbreak or open sore present in or around the mouth. While the virus that causes oral herpes is different from genital herpes, it is still possible to transfer the infection from the mouth to the genitals if oral sex is performed when sores are present.
Can you get herpes from sharing a drink? Herpes infection from a shared drink is highly unlikely if not virtually impossible. The virus is quite fragile and does not do well outside the body, so taking a sip from someone’s drink is not a major risk for herpes infection. However, we don’t recommend sharing drinks in general just because it exposes you to other possible illnesses, so if you want to try a drink, it’s best to get your own.
Can you get an STD from a swimming pool? The short answer – no, you cannot catch an STD by swimming in a pool or hanging out with others in a hot tub. There is potential for other health risks and infections that could make you quite sick, but any pool, hot tub, or spa that has the potential to harbor this bacteria would not pass any kind of inspection. If you’re in a private pool or hot tub, as long as the proper maintenance is happening, the combination of chemicals and dilution from the amount of water ensures your safety.
Toilet seats aren’t a threat, but herpes should always be taken seriously
Now that we’ve busted the toilet seat myth, if you’d like to learn more about HSV or how to maintain your sexual health with routine STD testing, check out our variety of discrete testing options or reach out to our care counselors today.
For information about testing, age- and demographic-based resources, and more, check out the Sexual Health Resource Directory from Priority STD.
- “Herpes simplex virus.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, May 20, 2020. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/herpes-simplex-virus.
- “How many people have herpes? What to know.” MedicalNewsToday, Sept 25, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/how-many-people-have-herpes.
- Bardell, D. “Survival of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 on Some FREQUENTLY Touched Objects in the Home and Public Buildings.” PubMed. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1990. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2172749/.
- “Genital Herpes Screening FAQ.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 11, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/screening.htm#:~:text=A%20healthcare%20provider%20may%20diagnose,use%20these%20samples%20work%20best.
- “Genital Herpes.” Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/herpes-hsv1-and-hsv2/genital-herpes