Few schoolyard rumors have stronger legs than those involving sexually transmitted infections (STI). Giggly adolescents trade misinformation on the playground as questions about sex rule the hallways, and the gym teacher begins the painful annual metamorphosis into a sex-ed instructor. One of the longest-standing rumors about STI transmission is that people can get them by drinking from water fountains and sitting on toilet seats.
As people learn more about HIV and AIDS, they've figured out that this really isn't possible. But one STI -- herpes -- still remains mysterious to a great many people. As a result, the idea that a person can contract herpes from drinking fountains and toilet seats remains a common notion. But is it an incorrect notion?
To be sure, public restrooms and water fountains can be dirty since they're used by a number of people, about 33 percent of whom don't wash their hands after using the toilet [source: WebMD]. Germs and viruses like E. coli and hepatitis A can be found on toilet seats and other surfaces. But what about herpes?
Herpes is actually two types of related viruses, herpes simplex virus type I (HSV-1) (usually leading to cold sores around the mouth) and HSV-2 (responsible for genital herpes). Humans are the only known living carriers for HSV-1, and both types are usually spread by skin-to-skin contact, like kissing and sexual intercourse [sources: Barker et al., CDC].
Herpes presents as painful blisters around genitalia or as cold sores around the mouth. During these outbreaks, the virus can be transmitted (called shedding) from one person to another. But herpes can also be shed during periods between outbreaks, which makes it a particularly contagious virus.
Luckily, most of us don't sharpen our razors on drinking fountain guards before shaving or kiss the seat after using the toilet. So does this mean herpes isn't transmitted from these objects?
Physicians and researchers consider the chances of contracting herpes from a drinking fountain or toilet extremely slim; the Mayo Clinic, for example, says that the herpes simplex virus (HSV) "is nearly impossible to get the infection through contact with toilets, towels or other objects used by an infected person" [source: Mayo Clinic]. That's because the herpes virus eventually dies outside the human body.
When exposed to the air and to the comparably harsh conditions that exist outside of the human body, the herpes virus tends to die very quickly, especially in dry conditions. The virus has been found to die after about 10 seconds when transmitted to an object like a toilet seat, although in damp conditions like drinking fountains, it can live for a little while longer [source: HerpesOnline]. As toilet seats tend to be drier, this would make them even more difficult to contract herpes from.
This doesn't mean that it's impossible to contract herpes from objects. The Mayo Clinic hedges its bets by pointing out that it's possible to contract HSV-1 by sharing eating utensils, razors, drinking straws or towels, although it says these modes of transmission are much less probable in the case of HSV-2 [source: Mayo Clinic]. By far, the most common form of transmission remains skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
In the majority of people infected with the virus, an outbreak never occurs or symptoms are so mild they may go unnoticed [source: Mayo Clinic]. A study conducted in 2005 found herpes DNA present in 98 percent of the participants [source: Louisiana State University]. The participants hadn't known they had herpes and had never experienced symptoms.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Bardell, D. "Survival of herpes simplex virus type 1 on some frequently touched objects in the home and public buildings." Internal Microbiology. 1990. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2172749?dopt=Abstract
- Barker, J., et al. "Spread and prevention of some common viral infections in community facilities and domestic homes." Journal of Applied Microbiology. 2001. http://h1n1.fsu.edu/doc/Virus%20prevention%20-%20good%20summary.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "STD facts." March 3, 2010. http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/STDFact-herpes.htm
- Herpes.com. "Tranmission." Accessed April 26, 2010.http://www.herpes.com/Transmission.shtml
- HerpesOnline. "Herpes simplex virus." Accessed April 26, 2010. http://www.herpesonline.org/articles/herpes_simplex_virus.html
- Louisiana State University. "Study finds herpes virus in 98 percent of healthy participants." Science Daily. January 7, 2005.http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/01/050106111129.htm
- Mayo Clinic. "Cold sore." March 13, 2010.http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cold-sore/DS00358
- Mayo Clinic. "Genital herpes." May 22, 2009.http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/genital-herpes/DS00179
- WebMD. "What can you catch in restrooms?" Accessed April 24, 2010. http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/what-can-you-catch-in-restrooms