Herpes is a group of viruses that can lead to oral or genital sores, blisters or ulcers. It's extremely contagious — but can you catch it while you're swimming, or does chlorine kill herpes?
Herpes is common — about 67 percent of the world's population under the age of 50 has some form of the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
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Both oral and genital herpes may not have any symptoms. For some, genital herpes may show up as genital or anal blisters or ulcers, per the WHO. And signs of oral herpes include cold sores and tingling, itching or burning around the mouth.
Given how contagious the herpes viruses are, you may be wondering if you can get herpes from a hot tub or swimming pool. After all, certain pathogens like E. coli, Giardia and norovirus are transmissible in water, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Below, we explore if you can contract oral or genital herpes in the swimming pool, whether you can swim with an oral or genital herpes outbreak, how herpes really spreads and tips to prevent it.
Can Herpes Kill You?
No, your average herpes infection will not kill you. However, rare complications like brain inflammation can be fatal if left untreated, per Mount Sinai. That's why it's best to visit your doctor to treat herpes and avoid additional health problems.
Does Chlorine Kill Herpes, or Can Herpes Survive in Water?
Herpes is most often spread through skin-to-skin contact, according to Cedars-Sinai. Accordingly, the likelihood of getting herpes in a hot tub or pool — without making physical contact with the person who has the virus — is low.
That's because chemical disinfectants like chlorine do typically kill herpes, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Still, it's possible that you can catch the virus in a pool if you make physical contact with someone with herpes (more on that later).
Can You Go in a Pool With Shingles?
Shingles, a type of contagious, painful rash, is caused by a herpes virus. However, it's not the same virus that leads to oral or genital herpes — instead, it's the same strain of herpes that can lead to chickenpox, per the Mayo Clinic.
Shingles is catchy — you can get it if you make direct contact with the fluid from someone's rash blisters, per the CDC. And while it's possible that you can catch it from swimming in the same pool as someone with shingles, you're much less likely to contract the disease without making contact, as chlorine can kill the herpes virus, per the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
And can you swim in chlorine with shingles? It's best to avoid pools altogether to prevent spreading it through shared towels and to avoid irritating the rash, per the National Health Service (NHS).
How Herpes Is Spread
Both oral and genital herpes are most contagious in the three days before and throughout an active outbreak, which is when someone has visible blisters or sores, per Cedars-Sinai. It's typically spread through close skin-to-skin contact.
In the case of oral herpes, this means you can get the virus if you kiss or share drinks with someone who has it, particularly if they have an active cold sore, according to Cedars-Sinai. For genital herpes, you can get the virus from having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who's infected.
You can also transfer herpes from one part of your body to another. For instance, if you touch your cold sore and then touch your genitals without washing your hands thoroughly, there's a chance you could spread the virus, according to the Ohio State University.
Touching a mouth or genital sore is also what causes herpetic whitlow outbreaks, which are painful, herpes-induced finger infections that can lead to blisters, sores and swelling on the affected digit, according to the NHS.
Can You Get an STD From a Hot Tub?
STDs are typically transmitted through sexual contact or contact with blood, semen, vaginal and other bodily fluids, per the Mayo Clinic. In other words, no, you can't catch an STD via pool water alone.
However, this doesn't mean you can have sex in a pool or hot tub without the risk for an STD. Any sexual contact with someone who has an STD — in or out of the water — can potentially transmit a virus, per the Mayo Clinic, so pool sex isn't safer.
How to Prevent and Treat Herpes
Herpes isn't curable, according to Mount Sinai. But fortunately, it's preventable and there are treatments to help ease outbreaks.
You can reduce the risk of catching or transmitting oral herpes by not sharing items that make contact with your mouth, like cups, utensils, toothbrushes and towels, according to Mount Sinai.
And you can decrease your risk for getting infected with genital herpes by taking the following precautions:
- Ask sexual partners to get regular STD checks
- Use a condom and/or dental dam during sex
- Use a water-based lubricant
- Limit your number of sexual partners
If you do develop herpes, visit your doctor to determine the best treatment for you. According to Mount Sinai, potential herpes remedies (for both oral and genital sores) include:
- Prescription antiviral drugs or ointments (These work best when started early, so see you doctor as soon as you have any symptoms. You may have tingling or pain before you see a bump.)
- Applying cool or warm compresses to irritated sores
- Taking over-the-counter pain medicine like ibuprofen to relieve any pain
Is Chlorine Good for Cold Sores?
While chlorine can kill the herpes virus, that doesn't mean it's good to apply to a cold sore. That's because swimming in water with high doses of the chemical can dry and irritate your skin, per the National Eczema Society, which may aggravate a sore.
Instead, follow your doctor's instructions for how to best heal your cold sore.
- World Health Organization: "Herpes simplex virus"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Stay Safe and Healthy in Your Backyard Pool"
- Cedars-Sinai: "How Much Do You Know About Herpes?"
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln: "Chemical Disinfectants for Biohazardous Procedures"
- Mayo Clinic: "Shingles"
- Mount Sinai: "Herpes simplex"
- Ohio State University: "I get cold sores a lot. Does that mean I should worry about every little bump below the belt?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)"
- National Health Service: "Herpetic whitlow (whitlow finger)"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Transmission"
- National Health Service: "Shingles"
- National Eczema Society: "Swimming and eczema"