While the idea of contracting HSV-1 can be quite scary to some, direct (and intimate) human contact is the most likely method of transmission. This means that developing the virus through coming into contact with bedding and pillows is unlikely.
Although the odds of transmission are not zero, it is important to note that HSV-1 is unlikely to survive outside of the body. This is especially true on fabrics and various objects.
If you are dealing with your first cold sore outbreak, you likely have many questions. There is certainly no such thing as a “dumb question” when healing and precaution are your main objectives.
Let’s explore the topic of HSV-1 transmission as well as the potential of virus survival outside of the body. Most notably on fabrics, such as bedding and pillows. Once you are armed with the right information you will be more likely to make better decisions regarding managing the virus.
How is HSV-1 Transmitted?
Before we tackle the topic of cold sores and various fabrics and other materials, it is important to understand HSV-1. Specifically how the virus is transmitted. As you will come to understand, there is a huge difference between virus life and direct transmission.
HSV-1, or cold sores, are transmitted through direct human contact. To be infected with HSV-1, the virus has to enter the body through damaged skin or via mucous membranes. Most notably inside the mouth and lips. This is why kissing someone with the virus, for example, is one of the most common forms of transmission. Direct contact with a cold sore (potentially through kissing) is how many people acquire HSV-1.
Once the virus enters the body the infected cells begin to replicate. The virus then enters the nerve cells (near the location of infection) and lays inactive until the virus is triggered. The virus cannot be transmitted during its dormant stage. However, most people typically have their first cold sore outbreak within weeks of becoming infected.
Viral shedding is the period where HSV-1 becomes active. Symptoms are displayed during this stage (cold sores) as well as the probability of transmission to others. Those who carry HSV-1 are deemed infectious during periods of viral shedding.
Regarding duration, viral shedding typically lasts 10-14 days. This is the normal lifespan of a cold sore from initial symptoms to complete healing. This timeframe can be drastically decreased if proper treatment measures are taken. Most experts consider HSV-1 to be no longer contagious once complete scabbing has formed over the infected area.
How Long Does the Cold Sore Virus Live on Surfaces?
Not long. In fact, HSV-1 essentially fails to thrive at all outside of the body. This is why the overwhelming majority of HSV-1 transmission comes from human-to-human engagement. Primarily from mouth contact through acts such as kissing or oral sex.
- Important: Regarding statistics, HSV-1 tends to live longer on plastic. Roughly 4 hours in total is the estimated time. The virus can live for 2 hours on skin. Example: HSV-1 could potentially live for 2 hours on your fingers if you touch an active cold sore.
However, the likelihood of contracting HSV-1 from a tabletop, for instance, would be incredibly small. This is why understanding the difference between the virus itself, and actual transmission is so critical.
Even if the virus is alive on a surface top, it still has to enter the body. This can only occur if an area of compromised skin is directly exposed. Once you consider those factors, the odds of transmission decrease even more.
What about shared drinks and utensils? What about a shared toothbrush? While this particular topic is brought up quite often as it relates to cold sore triggers, there is a distinct difference. In this case, we are noting where the mouth of an infected individual has been. By this logic, the “surface area” is not the same as a tabletop. Additionally, the sharing of a drink also involves liquid contamination.
- HSV-1 can live outside of the body for only a short time. Even if contact is made with the active virus, the odds of transmission are tiny.
- HSV-1 can potentially survive on a plastic surface up to four hours. However, this duration is quite subjective and depends on a host of environmental factors.
- The only surface areas that can potentially cause a legitimate issue would be beverage sharing and utensils. All objects that have been contacted by an infected person’s mouth are problematic. A toothbrush would be a prime example.
Can Cold Sores Spread Through Pillows and Sheets?
Not likely. This is due in large measure to the aforementioned process of viral shedding. HSV-1 transmission occurs through saliva. This fact alone makes transmission from bedding incredibly low. Unless your bedding (pillow) is saturated with fresh drool, you should be fine. As noted above, HSV-1 does not live very long outside of the body.
In terms of a worst case scenario, it is conceivable that you could spread HSV-1 to other parts of your own face. Of course, this logic is based on drool (on your pillow) entering a small abrasion on your face. While not impossible, even those odds are minuscule at best.
- Similar to plastic surfaces, HSV-1 transmission from pillows and sheets is highly unlikely.
- Unless your bedding (pillow) is covered with fresh drool, the odds of giving HSV-1 to someone else in this setting are small. In fact, you have a greater chance of spreading your own infection. Although, those odds are very minimal as well.
- Given that human-to-human transmission is the hallmark of HSV-1 spreading, most other scenarios all but have to be freakishly crafted. Especially in a setting where personal responsibility, rather than carelessness is, in fact, being used.
Is it Safe to Share Pillows and Bed Linen?
This act is likely safe but probably not very wise. The sharing of pillows and bed linen is simply not sanitary. If you have a guest coming over you should be considerate and change the bedding. This is simply a standard practice of respect.
However, in terms of HSV-1, sharing bedding is likely okay. If you have an active cold sore and slept on the bedding the night before, any trace of the virus will be gone by the following night.
We encourage you to tell your guest that you have active HSV-1. The same respect should be given if roles are reversed. This will allow the person to make their own decision concerning sleeping arrangements. If you are going to share bedding you should feel obligated to inform your guest.
- While not wise, simply for general hygiene purposes, sharing bedding should be okay. Because HSV-1 survives only a short time outside the body, your guest should be out of harm’s way by the following night.
- We encourage you to tell your guest if you have active HSV-1. If the same bedding is in place for your guest you should feel obligated to tell them about your situation.
- There is a difference between the virus remaining active and literal transmission. The odds of a pillow, for example, being a source of transmission is incredibly small. Especially after roughly 12+ hours have passed since the most recent period of sleep.
How Often Should You Wash Your Bedding if You Have Cold Sores?
This is a personal decision. If you are naturally inclined to do your laundry, including bedding, on a regular basis then you should continue that routine. However, if your HSV-1 status has made you concerned about additional bacteria, you can also live on the side of caution.
In truth, your normal washing schedule will likely be more than sufficient.
Because cold sores only last an average of 2-3 weeks, this situation will not be long term. Your cold sores will likely be gone by the time a second washing is needed.
Consider basic cleanliness over any specific health issue. As long as you wash your bedding on a routine basis you should have nothing to worry about. This is especially true given the fact that HSV-1, most notably when treated, might only be active for a matter of days or hours.
If there is news to be celebrated on this topic it is that HSV-1 transmission is limited to a small window. Unless close human contact occurs, the likelihood of acquiring HSV-1 through other means is minuscule. This is especially true when discussing bedding and pillows.
Although sanitary practices are wise from a general standpoint, harsh measures do not have to be taken to shield others from HSV-1. Because the virus remains dormant far more often that it is active, drastic means do not have to be taken.
If you are in the midst of a cold sore outbreak your main objective should involve OTC treatment. If you are concerned about potentially spreading the virus through shared bedding, your obligation is to inform the other person about your condition. If you follow these basic responsible acts then you will not only be helping yourself but also others.
- Father-to-Newborn Transmission of Herpes Simplex Virus Infection: A Sweet but Bitter Kiss
O. Guergué Diaz de Cerio, M. Rubio Lombraña, A. Barrutia Borque, M.R. González Hermosa
- Browning WD, McCarthy JP. A Case Series: Herpes Simplex Virus as an Occupational Hazard. Journal of Esthetic and Restorative Dentistry. 2012;24(1):61-66. doi:10.1111/j.1708-8240.2011.00469.x.