Written on October 19, 2023 by Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Do you squat uncomfortably midair every time you use a public toilet? Did you hear the urban legend that you can catch herpes from a toilet seat? Well, it is time to take a seat and learn more about one of the most common STIs in the United States—herpes. While primarily sexually transmitted, it is possible to catch the virus that causes herpes, the herpes simplex virus (HSV), without having sex. Everlywell supports your sexual health and peace of mind with accurate and helpful information about sexually transmitted infections like HSV.
The herpes virus causes clusters of blisters or sores on your genitals and mouth area called outbreaks. There are two types of the herpes simplex virus—HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause oral and genital infections with nearly the same symptoms. There is no cure for either HSV-1 or HSV-2. The virus stays in your body for life.
You can take medications to prevent and shorten outbreaks. Taking these medications can also reduce the chances that you will pass herpes on to your sexual partners.
Herpes spreads by skin-to-skin contact with infected areas, often during vaginal sex, oral sex, anal sex, and kissing. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 enter your body through your skin and mucous membranes. The thinner membranes on your mouth and genitals are common entry points for HSV. Just like you can get HPV without having sex, you can also get herpes without having sex—depending on how you define “sex.”
Herpes is an incredibly common virus. Over half (50-80 percent) of Americans have oral herpes, and 1 out of 6 Americans have genital herpes. That means that just about everyone who is sexually active, or even just kissing, is at risk of catching herpes. The symptoms of herpes can be subtle and easily missed—the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the majority of people with herpes don’t know that they have it.
Theoretically, yes, but it is extremely unlikely. Here’s why. Transmission of a virus or bacteria from an object (towel, bedding, sex toy, or toilet seat) to a living person is called fomite transmission.[5,6]
Fomite transmission of HSV happens extremely rarely.[4,5,6] Catching HSV from objects such as shared bed linens, clothing, towels, toilet seats, eating utensils, shared cups/glasses, or public spas is nearly impossible. Unlike the cold virus, which can be spread by touching dirty door handles or sharing a glass, the herpes virus is more fragile and cannot survive for long outside warm, moist areas.
Most toilet seat surfaces are dry and cooler than body temperature (60-70 degrees Fahrenheit compared to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit). They are also frequently (we hope) washed with virus-killing chemical disinfectants and exposed to some ambient air ventilation.
Even if a person with open herpes sores on their buttocks sat on a toilet seat before you did, you would also have to have open cuts or scratches on your buttock skin for the virus to get from the toilet seat into your bloodstream. And that is assuming that any virus in those secretions left behind on the toilet by the person before you didn’t perish in the dry, chemically cleaned surface of the exposed toilet seat before you sat down.
So, now you know that squatting midair above the toilet seat really isn’t the best HSV-avoidance plan. Instead, some more effective ways to keep from getting an HSV infection are to [1,2,4]:
Remember that a person infected with HSV always has the virus in their body. So, even if they don’t have any sores or HSV lesions, they may still have virus particles on and in their skin. These viral particles could infect you if they come in contact with your mucous membranes, an open cut, or a rash on your skin. Shedding HSV virus particles without symptoms is called asymptomatic shedding.[2-4]
Prescription medications can help reduce the number of virus particles you or your partner have in your bloodstream. The amount of virus in your body secretions, skin, or active HSV sores is highest at the time of an outbreak. Medications called antivirals (acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir) work to prevent outbreaks, lower viral load, and reduce the risk of transmission.[1,2]
If you suspect you may have herpes and are interested in potential treatment, consider the Everlywell option for STD treatment online via telehealth.