One issue that seems fuzzy to a lot of us who have herpes is whether it can be transmitted to or by hands. It’s an important question, since the hand is one part of the body that never gets protected during safe sex. (Hand condoms? For some reason I just don’t think it would catch on.) Not to mention that someone with herpes will inevitably touch oneself on or near the infected area and should know the risks of autoinoculation.
In general, HSV-1 and -2 can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, but typically only where mucous membranes or cuts in the skin are present. For those who don’t know, a mucous membrane is a lubricating lining that covers a passage between inside the body and outside. The most well known mucous membranes are in the genitals and the mouth. By exposing a hand to the genitals of someone with genital herpes, or the mouth of someone with oral herpes, there is little chance of infecting the hand with the herpes virus because the hand itself does not have a mucous membrane. If infection does occur, however, it is often facilitated by small cuts in the skin or torn cuticles, which allow the virus an entrance into the fingers and hand. This condition, called herpetic whitlow, usually causes blisters on the fingers or around the fingernails and is caused by both HSV types. It is more often spread from genital herpes in the adult population, and oral herpes when found in children due to thumb sucking. People who work in the dental field should be particularly careful about herpetic whitlow and always wear gloves while working with a patient.
While the risk of infecting your hand with the herpes virus is lower than it is for your mouth or genitals, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other risks involved with getting your hands dirty. In fact, one severe consequence of herpes transmission is blindness, since the eye is actually another part of the body with a mucous membrane. Though you’d have to be having pretty kinky sex to get eye herpes from someone else’s genitals, it is very possible to get it from an orally infected lover’s kiss near the eye, or from a hand. If you touch a sore with your hand and don’t wash your hands immediately after, you run the risk of accidentally rubbing your eye and giving yourself eye herpes. This can lead to blindness in extreme cases, so keeping your hands clean as much as possible, and avoiding your face when your hands are not clean, is an essential part of keeping herpes under control.
I recently read an advice column in which a woman got genital herpes not by having sex, but simply by giving a hand job to an infected man whom she didn’t know, and then touching her genitals soon after. Although it’s much more likely that this would happen during or around the time of an outbreak, it is possible that the disease could be spread this way even during asymptomatic viral shedding. Despite some people’s fears that you can get herpes from a toilet seat or a dirty floor, the reality is that for herpes to infect someone, there needs to be direct contact with the virus on a warm body. Once in contact, it’s a gamble whether the virus will actually be transmitted. So knowing your partner and/or practicing clean hygiene all the time - not just during sex - is crucial in protecting yourself, and others, from spreading the disease.