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Herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). There are two types:

  • HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1), which usually causes oral herpes
  • HSV-2 (herpes simplex virus type 2), which usually causes genital herpes

Both types of herpes are transmitted via intimate contact with the skin and bodily fluids — saliva, vaginal secretions, semen — of a person with the virus. In some rare instances, oral herpes can be transmitted via contaminated hard objects, such as a cup, toothbrush, or lipstick.

Herpes can’t live or thrive on porous surfaces, such as a towel. For this reason, you can’t get oral or genital herpes from using someone else’s towel.

Keep reading to learn about what germs you can pick up from a dirty towel, as well as how both oral and genital herpes are typically transmitted.

While herpes can’t be transmitted from using a dirty towel, there are germs that may be passed from one person to another in this way. Most commonly, these are the bacteria Staphylococcus (staph) and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

These germs and others live for a longer period of time on hard, porous surfaces than on nonporous ones, such as fabric. Even so, you may be exposed to viruses, fungi, and bacteria from a dirty towel if it’s newly soiled.

Caregivers to sick individuals must be especially careful not to come into contact with towels soiled from:

  • vomit
  • blood
  • urine
  • fecal matter
  • phlegm

Washing your hands thoroughly and immediately after touching a dirty towel should be enough to protect you from contagions.

Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be transmitted from skin-to-skin contact as well as from contact with bodily fluids, such as:

  • saliva
  • vaginal secretions
  • semen

Oral herpes (HSV-1)

Oral herpes is easily transmissible through infected saliva. It’s estimated that 50 to 80 percent of adults have oral herpes. The main symptom is cold sores on the lips.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, oral herpes can be spread by touching hard, inanimate objects that have infected saliva on them. However, oral herpes is primarily transmitted via kissing and oral-genital contact. It’s possible to get genital herpes from HSV-1 during oral sex with a partner who has the infection.

Even so, oral HSV-1 isn’t technically considered an STI. Many cases of HSV-1 are acquired during childhood from nonsexual activity.

Children are less likely than adults to take precautions when they’re coughing or blowing their noses. They can easily spread HSV-1 through hard objects that are shared. They can also spread it from close contact with each other and with adults.

Genital herpes (HSV-2)

HSV-2 enters the body through contact with mucous membranes or an open tear in skin. It’s transmitted primarily through intimate sexual activity, including:

It’s possible, but not likely, to get HSV-2 from kissing.

Congenital herpes

Congenital herpes is herpes that’s present from birth. HSV-1 and HSV-2 can both be passed by a pregnant person to an unborn baby or fetus.

For example, a birth parent can transmit herpes to an unborn baby during vaginal delivery. The virus can also affect a fetus in utero during pregnancy, though this is less common.

Here are some ways to prevent getting or passing oral or genital herpes.


HSV-1 is passed primarily via oral-to-oral contact. If you or your partner have an active or impending cold sore, refrain from kissing. Symptoms to look out for include:

  • tingling, itching, or burning sensation on the lip
  • open or closed blisters
  • oozing cold sores

Since the virus can also be transmitted via sexual activity, avoid oral-genital contact during an active outbreak. This will help to diminish your chances of getting or giving the herpes virus.


If you’re sexually active, avoid oral, anal, and vaginal sex during an active herpes outbreak.

Keep in mind that the herpes virus can be shed from areas of skin without active lesions. For that reason, a condom isn’t always enough to protect you from getting the virus.

Certain medications can help, though. Talk to a doctor about anti-herpes drugs that you can take every day to reduce or eliminate your risk for outbreaks and transmission to others.

Herpes simplex is very common — oral herpes affects 50 to 80 percent of all adults.

Oral herpes is transmitted primarily from oral-to-oral contact. It can also be transmitted from oral-to-genital contact.

Genital herpes is transmitted primarily from sexual activity, including oral, anal, and vaginal sex.

Neither form of herpes can be transmitted from a dirty towel.