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Herpes tests are done to find the herpes simplex virus (HSV). An HSV infection can cause small, painful sores that look like blisters on the skin or the tissue lining (mucous membranes) of the throat, nose, mouth, urethra, rectum, and vagina. A herpes infection may cause only a single outbreak of sores, but in many cases the person will have more outbreaks.
There are two types of HSV.
In rare cases, HSV can infect other parts of the body, such as the eyes and the brain.
Tests for HSV are most often done only for sores in the genital area. The test may also be done using other types of samples, such as spinal fluid, blood, urine, or tears. To see whether sores are caused by HSV, different types of tests may be done.
About 1 out of 6 adults in the United States have antibodies to HSV-2, the virus typically linked to genital herpes.footnote 1
A herpes infection cannot be cured. After you become infected with HSV, the virus stays in the body for life. It "hides" in a certain type of nerve cell and causes more outbreaks of sores in some people. Recurring infections can be triggered by stress, fatigue, sunlight, or another infection, such as a cold or flu. Medicine can relieve symptoms and shorten the length of the outbreaks, but medicine cannot cure the infection.
A different herpes virus (called varicella zoster) causes chickenpox and shingles.
A test for herpes may be done to:
If you may have genital herpes, do not have sexual contact until your test results are back. You can lower the chance of spreading the disease to your partner(s).
For a viral culture, viral antigen test, or PCR test, a clean cotton swab is rubbed against a herpes sore to collect fluid and cells for examination. Samples may be collected from the vagina, cervix, penis, urethra, eye, throat, or skin. Doctors usually collect a sample from small sores that are only a few days old. Viruses are more likely to be found in small newly formed sores.
For an antibody test, the health professional drawing blood will:
You are likely to feel some mild discomfort or pain when the sores are scraped to collect a sample for testing.
The blood sample is taken from a vein in your arm. An elastic band is wrapped around your upper arm. It may feel tight. You may feel nothing at all from the needle, or you may feel a quick sting or pinch.
If an antibody test is done, there is very little chance of problems from having a blood sample taken from a vein.
Herpes tests are done to find the herpes simplex virus(HSV). Results for a rapid viral culture may take 2 to 3 days, while results for a standard culture can take up to 14 days. Antigen detection test results are ready in a day. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results are ready in 1 to 3 days. Results from an antibody blood test are ready in 2 days. The results from an antibody test called an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA, EIA) may be ready in about 2 hours.
Normal results are called negative.
No HSV grows in the viral culture.
No viral antigens or DNA are found.
No herpes antibodies are present in the blood.
Abnormal results that show HSV are called positive.
HSV grows in the viral culture.
HSV antigens or DNA are found.
Antibodies to the herpes virus are present in the blood.
Samples taken from newly formed sores containing fluid (blisters) are generally better than samples collected from older, crusted sores.
Rapid tests are available at some clinics that check blood from a finger stick for antibodies to HSV-2. The results are generally ready in about 10 minutes. These tests are more expensive than other tests and may not be available everywhere.
A normal (negative) test result does not mean you do not have a herpes infection. If the first test is negative but you have symptoms of herpes, more tests may be done.
Reasons you may not be able to have the test or why the results may not be helpful include:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Seroprevalence of herpes simplex virus type 2 among persons aged 14-49 years-United States, 2005-2008. MMWR, 59(15): 456-459. Also available online: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/wk/mm5915.pdf.
Other Works Consulted
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2007, reaffirmed 2009). Management of herpes in pregnancy. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 82. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 109(6): 1489-1498.
Chernecky CC, Berger BJ (2013). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 6th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
Fischbach F, Dunning MB III (2015). A Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 9th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health.
Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2014). Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 5th ed. St. Louis: Mosby.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerSarah A. Marshall, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family MedicineMartin J. Gabica, MD - Family MedicineKevin C. Kiley, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Current as ofNovember 27, 2017
Current as of:
November 27, 2017
Sarah A. Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
& E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine & Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine & Kevin C. Kiley, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
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