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
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.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
A different herpes virus (called varicella zoster)
A test for herpes may be done
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
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
You are likely to feel some mild
discomfort or pain when the sores are scraped to collect a sample for
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
Normal results are called
No HSV grows in the viral
DNA are found.
antibodies are present in the blood.
Abnormal results that show HSV are called
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
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 (2008). Laboratory Tests and Diagnostic Procedures, 5th ed. St. Louis: Saunders.
Fischbach FT, Dunning MB III, eds. (2009). Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests, 8th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Pagana KD, Pagana TJ (2010). Mosby’s Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests, 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby.
December 20, 2012
Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
& Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, MPH - Infectious Disease
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