Parenting and genital herpes


Parents commonly tell me about worries they have about passing on genital herpes to their children in the course of daily life (I’m not referring here to pregnancy and childbirth – that’s another topic I’ll write about). Perhaps because there is so little information that addresses parents’ concerns, parents end up devising all sorts of ‘safety strategies’ that are completely unnecessary.

The key message is – loving parents (this category includes includes grumpy, tired, in-need-of-a-break parents :) ) do not pass on genital herpes to their children through the ‘normal’ intimacies of family life. It’s important that fear of transmission doesn’t get in the way of loving touch and shared experiences.

  • Snuggling in bed together is ‘safe’ – the virus isn’t crawling on the sheets from one person to the next
  • Sharing a bath or shower together isn’t a way the virus is passed on – the same is true for spa baths and swimming pools
  • Washing clothes in the same washing machine, even when a person has a recurrence, will not pass on the virus
  • A child brushing against an adult’s upper thighs or abdomen while the adult has a recurrence won’t pass on the virus
  • If an adult uses the toilet or has touched the genital area and forgotten to wash their hands this omission is not problematic in terms of herpes. The virus is fragile and dies when it leaves living cells
  • Washing with ordinary soap and water is clean enough – there’s no need to use any special hand or toilet seat sanitisers
  • I know children do all sorts of odd things that you can’t anticipate but even if they put your worn knickers on their head they are not going to contract the virus – relax and laugh with them

I hope this information will reassure any of you who are parents (nieces, nephews, grandkids, step-kids etc) and help you to enjoy your children.

Catherine Cook
Catherine Cook


29 Responses to “Parenting and genital herpes”

  1. worried Says:

    r u saying that children cannot catch herpes from a toilet seat and there’s no reason to disinfect if u have an outbreak?

  2. Catherine Cook Counsellor Says:

    There is no risk from contracting genital herpes from toilet seats. In the home situation, there is no need to use any special wipes on the toilet after someone with herpes has used the toilet. Genital herpes isn’t passed through sharing domestic items – it’s sexually transmitted.
    Catherine Cook
    nurse counsellor

  3. cat Says:

    Hi my 2 1/2 year old goes to creche everyday. this morning I noticed a rash of red pimple like sores on her inner thigh and a few on her other thigh. there was one on her knee the doctor said it could be a spore. neither me or my partner have or ever had a herpes virus. I have occasional cold sore but not for months and my partner never had cold sore virus. basically I am wondering how she could have gotten this could it be from another child or toys in creche? she is full toilet trained so no longer goes on changing mat. also, staff say no other children seem to have cold sores or this rash or staff members. but I don’t think they would tell me anyway. please get back to me on this

  4. cat Says:

    the doctor says it is herpes simplex virus. I have been googling on it and this seems to be in the range of gen. herpes.

  5. Catherine Cook Counsellor Says:

    A doctor cannot make an accurate diagnosis of herpes just by looking at the sores – a viral culture swab needs to be taken to confirm the diagnosis. Many children have rashes that at first glance doctors think might be herpes but are not. A very common virus in children is called molluscum contagiosum – it’s very easily passed on from child to child and the little bumps can stay around for a while but once they have resolved the child has immunity and does not re-contract molluscum again. Molluscum is sometimes mistaken for herpes. Of course I cannot offer any sort of diagnosis but just to emphasise that it is vital that children are not mistakenly diagnosed as having herpes when they don’t.

  6. worriedmom Says:

    Can hsv-2 be passed by shareing the same bar of soap or wash cloth durring an outbreak? I alway wash my hands but what if I forget n touch my child, can it be passed?

  7. Catherine Cook Counsellor Says:

    I understand you want to absolutely ensure that your children are safe. People do not turn up at sexual health clinics infected through contact with domestic items. Contact requires skin-to-skin rubbing. As a matter of hygiene it is advisable to use a wash-cloth once and then put it in the washing machine as any damp cloth lying around will grow bacteria. If the wash cloth issue is a cause of stress for you then just give them up – many people just use their hands to wash their bodies. Again, you will not pass the virus through sharing soap but if the worry lingers for you then change to a liquid soap.

  8. cat Says:

    it turned out to be an unspecific dermatitis. thank you for your advice you were absolutely correct. the first doctor was too inexperienced and should have not tried to diagnose something so serious at a glance, we were very worried. thank you

  9. Catherine Cook Counsellor Says:

    Thanks for getting back to me – I’m glad you’ve had this reassurance about the diagnosis of dermatitis. Your experience underscores the importance of obtaining a herpes diagnosis via a positive swab result before declaring that the cause of a rash is HSV.

  10. mike Says:

    so my g/f and i both have genital herpes. our 1 year old son has gotten showers with us before (of course not during a noticeable outbreak). sometimes, admittingly, i don’t wash my hands after going to the bathroom and we often have to pull back his penis to clean it. tonight i noticed a red area on his penis and it is raised and irritated a bit (a symptom I know all too well and looks like it could be herpes). monday i will take him to the doctor if it doesn’t go away by tomorrow morning but i’m freaking out that we could’ve passed it on to him. after reading your posts i see that it is highly unlikely it was passed on to him by me going to the bathroom not washing hands and then touching his penis. do you have any links to published info about this cause i can’t find anything online in regards to this topic! if not just please answer my questions/concerns with your expertise. sorry for the long post. so worried can’t even sleep.

  11. Catherine Cook Counsellor Says:

    Hi Mike, it may be that your well-intentioned efforts to keep your child clean have irritated the foreskin by trying to retract it. The foreskin does not retract until a child is older and should be left alone – ask your doctor to advise you as to when he is old enough for you to encourage very gently retracting the foreskin for washing. It sounds like you may be overdoing it. Many parents with herpes leap to the immediate and incorrect idea that they have passed the virus to their children. There are many ordinary childhood problems that occur for children who are still in nappoies (diapers) as the combination of warmth and damp is a great environment to set up inflammation and mild infections. See your doctor as soon as possible especially if the symptoms worsen.

  12. Sara Says:

    I am freaking out! My 3 year old daughter came to me tonight complaining that her “pookie” (our name for her private area) hurt. I took her into the bathroom and got a closer look and right on the inside lip of her vagina is a small red patch of what looks like tiny red pimples under the skin. It has never been confirmed but both my husband and I are almost 100% positive that we have genital herpes. I, like the others who have posted here try to do what I can to keep everything clean and remember to wash hands and what not but I am deathly afraid that somehow she has contracted the disease from one of us. I don’t really know the right way to handle this situation. We do not have a regular family doctor, so would it be best to take her to a pediatrician, or the health department?? I am desperate for some advice. Thanks for your time.

  13. Catherine Cook Counsellor Says:

    Hi Sara,
    I can understand that you are worried, as I hear from so many parents who have herpes and have concerns about transmission to children. Please re-read all the material I have written in the original blog and to other parents who have similar concerns. It is very common for little children to get all sorts of spots and rashes on their genital area. When parents have herpes, this infection is the first thing that springs to mind when they see anything resembling a pimple on their child’s genitals, but it is usually the least likely diagnosis. Genital herpes is not passed from adults to children with the normal intimacies of family life, such as kissing, cuddling in bed and sharing a bath or shower together. It sounds like you are in the States and this is a New Zealand-based blog so I’m not able to advise you with regards to your health system. Here, a parent would take a child to see a general practitioner. Specialists in NZ would only become involved for persistent symptoms and/or if there was any concern about sexual abuse of the child. It is my understanding that parents commonly treat mild rashes on children’s genitals with over-the-counter preparations and only seek medical care if the problem is ongoing.

  14. gwen Says:

    Sara-I just read your post and obviously am going through something similiar since I found this site. I have had herpes 2 for 20 years-I had my son 12 years ago vaginally and my daughter 7 years ago by c-section because of an outbreak 3 days before my water broke. I have OCD so it doesn’t help but fuels the fire when I see something on my daughters private area-I have had 3 times since she was 2 that a pimple like scab was there and everytime it takes me days on sites like this to calm down and get a grip. Yesterday she was complaining she had a rash-( when I Put ointment on her I use a wash cloth-I wont even let my finger with ointment on it touch her down there) there was a little spot that looked to be scabbed over-and I have been freaking ever since. I know this is my OCD more than anything-I just have to listen to the experts when they say it is virtually impossible to transmit by not washing hands, co-sleeping, snuggling etc….
    Just another concerned Mom that would die if I gave this to my daughter.

  15. Laura Says:

    I am terrified I have given herpes to my 3 year old daughter. I have been suffering with what I thought was vaginal exzema for over ten years now. I have even had it checked out on a few occassions & it was confirmed as exzema. I had my 3rd child back in June and started to suffer with pain in my private area shortly afterwards & then the irritation started a few weeks after that & have been suffering ever since. Anyway I am convinced I have herpes as after looking up my symptoms on the net. I am going to get checked tomorrow. We have recently got back from a foreign holiday & 3 days after returning my 3 year old daughter started to break out in small red spots/pustules (as described by the doctor). She has one on her face, one on her torso & a couple on her upper leg, hands and arms. They do not appear to be bothering her or itchy and she has no other symptoms apart from a slight sore throat which went within a day. She is eating great etc. Anyway its 5 days on and they are starting to fade slightly but still there. I have had her at the doc twice & she can’t figure out what it is (I didn’t relay my fears about me having herpes). The doc said to keep an eye on her & if they fade it was just one of those things but if not they will send her to a derm. Obviously on holidays we had alot of close contact in the swimming pool & had one shower with her but that was it. Have actually never shared a shower with her before that. Anway I’m so sorry for the long post but am just looking for some reassurance that I have not passed anything onto her & we be VERY grateful for your advice. Thank you, Louise

  16. Catherine Cook Counsellor Says:

    I understand that you, like other parents who contact me, are often very anxious about passing genital HSV on to children. Children commonly experience a range of rashes throughout childhood and parents who are anxious about the possibility of herpes transmission are vulnerable to freaking out with worry each time a rash appears.
    I’m not able to comment diagnostically with any accuracy (and it would be beyond my role to attempt to do so) on the scenarios people bring about their children’s rashes to this blog, but I can offer the repeated reassurance that genital herpes is transmitted through sexual contact, not through domestic contact and the usual intimacies between parents and children. Herpes is a fragile virus that is passed through direct genital skin-toskin rubbing. Herpes is rarely associated with rashes anywhere other than the facial or genital area. It sounds like it will be very helpful for you to have your own diagnosis clarified and then to discuss the worries you have with a doctor who can offer education and reassurance about managing family life, if you do have a herpes diagnosis. I hope that reading through my previous posts on this topic will also help to settle your fears.

  17. Laura Says:

    Thank you for your quick response, it was very helpful. I am bringing my daughter to be looked at tomorrow but the doc said it is very unlikely. I have to wait 2 weeks on my test results. Thanks again

  18. Laura Says:

    Hi Catherine, just looking for a bit more advice. I received my test results for hsv & the doc said I have immunity to it but couldn’t say it it was hsv-1 or 2. I am going to look into getting another test done to clarify. My daughter still has the rash 2 weeks on. I have had her at the doc a few times & although he couldn’t give a definite diagnoses he said he can’t see anything sinister & it looks like an atypical viral rash with a slight sore throat & could take up to 6 weeks to go. I also brought her to my doc & asked outstraight if it could be herpes & he said no too. Now from reading your post I know it is very unlikely she did get it from me but I can’t stop worrying about it. I take it if the doc’s would know from the rash it it was what I suspect. She doesn’t have anything on her genitals just one spot on her buttock and the rest of it is spread out. Sorry for the long post, I think I am becoming a bit obsessive about this now and really want to put it behind me. Thank you.

  19. Catherine Cook Counsellor Says:

    Hello Laura, It doesn’t sounds like you are in NZ as in NZ labs bloods for HSV testing are always type-specific, checking for antibodies to HSV1 and HSV2. When antibodies show up, in the case of herpes, a positive result means that the person has contracted the virus at some stage and their immune system has mounted an antibody response. Having an immune response means that if a person has a recurrence, the recurrence will be limited because the person now has antibodies. In the case of the herpes simplex virus, having antibodies doesn’t mean that they have immunity – it means that they have contracted the virus.

    I understand that you are worried about your daughter’s rash. Children tend to have so many rashes in childhood. Often at the end of even a mild viral ‘flu, children will have a viral rash. Although your mind leaps to herpes as the reason, it doesn’t mean that your fears are correct. It sounds like your doctor is reassuring you that your child has had a normal post-viral rash.

  20. Laura Says:

    Hi Catherine, I was in touch with you last year in relation to my worries about passing herpes to my daughter. Thankfully my daughter is fine but I remain confused about my own status. When I had the blood test antibodies showed up but my doctor informed me there is no specific blood test (in this country) to determine if i have type 1 or 2. I have always had cold sores so my doc said it is not a surprise that the test was positive. I relayed my concerns to 2 different doctors about my worries about not knowing if I have the virus or not and they said to forget about it that I would have immunity to it by now as I believe I may have it over ten years. When I got checked all these years ago on what I think was my second outbreak I was told it was exzema so put it behind me but I believe it is easy for herpes to be misdiagnosed? In this ten years I have had very few symptoms apart from slight irritation and itching up to last year when I had noticeable pain for the first time (i did have a very stressful few months prior to this) which is what has me worried. Since then I have also had 3 healthy children and my husband shows no signs of the virus. I am just wondering if it should be as easy as the doctors say to move on from this as I would have thought it would be a serious matter if i do have this virus? I am trying very hard to move on but it is very difficult not knowing. One of the doctors did say to come back to her if I have a noticeable irritation and she will do a physical examination but until or if that happens nothing else can be done. Sorry for the long post but I would really appreciate your opinion on this. Thank you. Laura

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