Myths about herpes

         Despite the stigma, a lot of people have some strain of herpes.  Approximately 20% of the population has HSV-2 (herpes simplex virus - type 2) (i.e., genital herpes), while about 80% has HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus - type 1) (i.e., cold sores).  Even though so many people have a form of herpes, many myths about herpes still exist. Whether you have herpes or not, knowing the myths about herpes helps everyone. The Center for Growth runs a Herpes Support Group, and within it, one of the most common concerns that members express is the feeling of being tainted.  They state that they feel dirty and need to go through extreme measures to protect their loved ones from transmitting the virus.  Although, there are some good safety behaviors that can help lessen the transmission of the virus (discussed below), it is not necessary to live in a biohazard suit or disinfect all surfaces that an HSV positive person has touched.    Accurate information can guide healthy actions, while also lessening the stigma surrounding herpes. That being said, let’s start with one of the most prevailing myths.


You Can Easily Get Herpes From A Toilet Seat

         To get straight to the point there is a very low chance of contracting herpes from a toilet seat.  This is because of how the herpes virus spreads. A person can only receive the virus from bodily fluids (e.g., saliva, vaginal fluids, semen, and blood) and from skin-to-skin contact.  Regarding the latter, the herpes virus can replicate by shedding, which allows the virus to spread through physical contact. According to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention, the herpes simplex virus cannot stay alive on non-living surfaces (e.g., a toilet seat).  However, a publication within the BMC Infectious Disease journal states that it is possible for the virus to stay alive on an inanimate object for a few minutes. To summarize, medical studies disagree on the exact survivability of HSV, with a few minutes being the most conservative estimate.  Even if the virus did survive on the toilet seat for a few seconds to a minute, the odds that another human being would sit on that part of the toilet seat within that time frame and have the virus be strong enough to be effectively transferred to a new person, would also be significantly low. This means that the chances of you receiving or transferring HSV is extremely low.   


You Can Never Kiss Anyone When You Have Herpes, Especially Babies

         Spreading HSV-1 (i.e., cold sores) is often at the core of this myth, as well as the fear of harming a newborn.  Additionally, part of what makes this particular myth so prevalent is its complexity. The primary way to receive and transmit HSV-1 is through kissing, which can involve saliva, skin-to-skin contact with a cold sore, and through asymptomatic shedding (i.e., not seeing any signs of a cold sore).  Kissing is indeed how HSV-1 spreads; therefore, there is always a risk to spread HSV-1 when choosing to kiss someone. At the same time, there are ways to reduce HSV-1’s transmission rate. When kissing adults, the person with herpes can abstain from kissing when they know that they have a cold sore or when they or their kissing partner have an open cut in the mouth.  When kissing babies, the person can do the above actions, while also waiting for the baby to be older than two months. A baby’s immune system becomes more developed around two months, which reduces, not eliminates, the risk of transmission. The person can also choose to kiss the baby on the cheek, or other areas where there wouldn’t be any saliva exchanged. Believing that you will always receive/transmit herpes through kissing would be similar to believing that you will always get into a car accident when driving.  To be clear, yes, a person with HSV-1 always carries the risk of transmitting the virus when kissing.  At the same time, preventative measures can occur. 


Only Promiscuous People Have Herpes

         Unfortunately, another myth of herpes is the belief that only promiscuous people get the virus.  This is far from the truth, and for multiple reasons. For instance, approximately 80% of the population has HSV-1, while about 20% has HSV-2.  “Promiscuity” alone could not contribute to herpes’s high rate of infection. People can, and have, received HSV from their very first sexual experience, from within a committed relationship, or from a sexless encounter (e.g., kissing, being born with it).  Infidelity, dishonesty, and ignorance all contribute to the spread of herpes. Regarding infidelity, a person could have sex with only one person, only for their partner to introduce HSV into the relationship through cheating.  After all, when some people are in a committed relationship, they assume that all parties are being faithful, so they stop taking sexual precautions (e.g., condoms, dental dams, etc.). Meanwhile, dishonesty may spread the virus through a person’s refusal to honestly disclose their diagnosis.  As for ignorance, HSV-1 and 2 can be asymptomatic, meaning that a person could have herpes for years or even decades and not know it. If a person believes that they do not have herpes, they may not always take sexual precautions specific to herpes. Additionally, HSV doesn’t always spread because of something negative.  There are people who enter or continue relationships knowing that their sexual partner has HSV. Though sex can occur without spreading the virus, some people may forego sexual precautions because HSV isn’t a big deal to them, and/or because they already evaluated the risks and feel at peace with them.


You Can Never Have Sex without Spreading the Virus

         This is another myth.  A person with herpes can still have sex without spreading the virus.  Furthermore, the person can still have casual sex with herpesBarrier methods (e.g., condoms, dental dams) are highly effective in preventing the spread of HSV, especially when paired with Valtrex (~98% success rate).  Valtrex is a pharmaceutical drug that reduces the outbreak and shedding of HSV-1 and 2 significantly. Though it is still possible to spread the virus during sex, stating that sex can never occur would be disingenuous.


Every Person with Herpes Knows that They Have It

         As previously mentioned, herpes is a virus that can often be asymptomatic.  There are signs of having herpes (e.g., cold sores, red bumps around the pelvic area); however, these symptoms don’t always manifest.  Additionally, these symptoms can occur only once, or even decades after a person received the virus. Many people envision herpes as a clear, permanent mark that showcases a person’s status.  However, HSV isn’t like a scar from an injury; the virus simply does not work that way.


Joking About Herpes is Harmless

         Finally, perhaps one of the biggest myths of herpes is that joking about it is harmless.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Words were designed to carry weight, to carry meaning.  That doesn’t suddenly go away when a person makes a joke. Despite literally millions of people having some form of herpes, the stigma surrounding it remains strong.  Ironically, having herpes can initially feel isolating, which partly comes from disparaging jokes. No one wants to admit to being a part of a group when said group receives insults and humiliation.  Naturally, this isolation, disparagement, and humiliation negatively affects a person’s mental health, leading to lowered self-esteem, melancholy, and even depression. Jokes are not solely responsible for the stigma regarding herpes, but they do perpetuate it. 


There are many myths about herpes, and many people with it.  Therefore, these myths tend to be damaging to either you or someone whom you know.  Now that you have education regarding these myths, you are less likely to perpetuate their harm.  If you or someone whom you know is struggling with HSV, know that it’s okay. A lot of people struggle with its stigma.  For assistance dealing with the myths of herpes, try group or individual therapy for herpes at


Melvin Tillman,

Dr. Melvin Tillman offers individual, couples and family therapy, with a specialization of sex therapy. He currently works with clients struggling with anger, anxiety, blended families, depression compulsive behaviors, financial problems, grief, infidelity, panic, phobias, polyamory, self-esteem, sexual harassment, trauma, sexual function / dysfunction. Additionally on Thursday's from 7-8pm he runs our Depression Support Group.     Dr. Tillman joined the Center for Growth in 2016. He completed a one year - post masters fellowship with us and never left! Dr. Tillman received his Bachelors in Psychology at the University of Illinois, and his Masters in Counseling at Northwestern University and a doctoral degree in Human Sexuality Studies at Widener University.  His dissertation was on the factors that lead to a healthy, sexual self-image for women living in the USA.