I am sexually active with a woman who has a male roommate with genital herpes. They share towels and wash their clothes together, plus use the same toilet. Neither one of us has shown signs of herpes, but we want to know if it's possible to get the virus from using the same toilet and towels. If so, can our doctors test us before we have an outbreak? - Worried About Herpes
The answer, dear Worried, is no. “You can’t get herpes from sharing a towel or using the same toilet,” says Detroit-based obstetrician-gynecologist Andrea Eisenberg, M.D. “The herpes virus isn’t that hardy and doesn’t live when it leaves the skin.” And unlike the viruses that cause the common cold, it's not transmitted via surfaces.
That means you can't get herpes from bedding, swimming pools, or shared objects like utensils either, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To survive, the virus needs to have a place to invade, such as sores or cuts, explains Dr. Eisenberg. “This is why it spreads much more easily from men to women than from women to men,” she says. “Women naturally have microabrasions in their vagina when they have intercourse. These small cuts allow the virus to enter the body.”
The infection is most contagious when herpes sores are active—which means open and wet. If that fluid gets on the skin of another person and then finds its way into the body through oral, anal, or vaginal sex, the virus can spread. Casual contact with another person does not usually increase the risk of transmission.
But here's where it gets tricky: Herpes can also spread if the person with the virus doesn’t have any symptoms, according to John Hopkins Medicine. There are times when the virus makes copies of itself on the surface of the skin, a process called shedding. It's estimated that somewhere between 1% and 3% of people with herpes are shedding the virus at any given time. That’s why it's important to always use condoms during all sexual contact, oral, anal, and vaginal.
In many cases, people with herpes don’t ever have any symptoms. In fact, lots of people have it and just don't know, according to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. If you're concerned, a blood test can confirm if you have the virus, but it can’t tell you how long you have had it, who gave it to you, or whether you will ever have symptoms. Most doctors don’t include herpes in standard STI testing; instead it's usually diagnosed by sight during an outbreak or by testing the fluid from an open sore, according to the CDC.
The Bottom Line
You and your partner don’t need to worry about getting the herpes virus from her roommate via contact with things like the toilet seat, towels, clothes, or bedding. That said, it’s always wise to get tested for STIs when you start having sex with a new partner—so if you didn’t do that at the beginning of your relationship and you have concerns, it never hurts to go find out your status.
You should know: The answers above provide general health information that is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment recommendations from a qualified healthcare professional.