Should you pause before playing with a virtual reality headset at a conference or communal event?
A text and Twitter exchange recently suggested that ocular herpes had been spread by headsets at a gaming convention. This claim was shared widely through social media, and created a wave of anxiety among technology and gaming fans. The people involved have chosen to stay anonymous and no outbreak has been confirmed.
Herpes Unlikely to Be Transmitted by Objects
But the reality is that catching herpes from a shared headset is “very unlikely,” according to Dr. Rebecca Taylor, a Nashville-based ophthalmologist. The herpes simplex virus (HSV-1) doesn’t live very well outside of the body, and is spread primarily through person-to-person contact rather than contact with inanimate objects.
If a virtual reality user was diagnosed with herpes after donning a headset “more than likely that person was already a carrier of the virus,” Dr. Taylor says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half of Americans have HSV-1 — even if they don’t show any signs or symptoms. Many people likely were exposed to the virus during childhood. A dormant virus can become active when the individual’s defenses go down, from sickness or stress, for example. The eye is one place HSV-1 can show up, in addition to the lip and the nose.
Pink Eye Is More Easily Transmitted Than Herpes
Adenovirus is more likely to survive on a virtual reality headset. That’s the same virus that causes conjunctivitis or pink eye as well as the common cold. “However,” Dr. Taylor says, “catching pink eye from a contaminated headset isn’t any more likely than catching it from a telephone, doorknob, shopping cart or anything else you touch with your hand.”
In other words, what’s on the outside of the headset is just as worrisome as what’s on the inside of it. “If you pick up a virus from gaming headgear, you actually may have gotten it from your hands, which then rubbed your nose or touched your mouth or eye,” says Dr. Taylor.
Basic Cleanliness Is Your Best Defense
So, if you are a virtual reality enthusiast, the most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to wash your hands before and after using gear. Wiping the headset with a bleach wipe or product—which is more effective than soap and water—is also recommended in between uses. As an extra precaution, screen other users for illnesses and, if they admit to having been sick recently, avoid contact.