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How Do You Test for Herpes?

Your local healthcare provider can test for herpes by swabbing a sore, if present, or by doing a blood test. Physicians don’t routinely test for herpes unless a patient has a visible sore or other symptoms. If you’re concerned that you may have this STI, a herpes test is the only way to know for certain.

What Is the Process of Testing for Herpes?

If you have a blister or sore, your local healthcare provider will test for herpes by taking a swab of fluid from the sore. Your doctor will send this sample to a laboratory for a viral culture to determine whether you have herpes. It’s best to get the sore tested within 48 hours of its appearance.

If you don’t have sores, your doctor can take a blood sample to test for herpes. This test looks for herpes simplex virus (HSV) antibodies which let your healthcare provider know that you have had a past herpes infection.

Another way to test for herpes is with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. This test uses PCR to make a copy of your DNA using blood, spinal tissue, a tissue sample from a suspected herpes sore. This test can then examine your DNA for the presence of HSV and identify which type of HSV is present.

How Accurate Is the Herpes Test?

Taking a swab of a lesion is the most accurate way to test for herpes. If you receive a positive result from a sore, you can be certain that you have herpes. A swab can also tell you whether you have HSV-1 or HSV-2. Unfortunately, a swab can also give you a false negative. You’re especially likely to get a false negative if the lesion has been present for more than 48 hours, as it will begin to heal after that time. False negatives from viral cultures are more likely with each subsequent outbreak.

A PCR test is more accurate than a swab test and is a good option both for those who do have current sores and those who do not.

Blood tests do not look for an active herpes outbreak. Rather, they check the blood for antibodies. There are two types of antibodies that may be present: IgM and IgG. IgG antibodies appear shortly after you become infected with herpes and stay in the body for life. IgG testing is more accurate than IgM testing.

IgM tests can yield a false negative if you’ve recently become infected with herpes, as you might not have these antibodies yet. Over time, IgM antibodies will go away, so you can get a false negative between outbreaks as well. Some IgM tests also cross-react with similar viruses that cause chickenpox or mono, so you may also get a false positive.

Should I Get Routinely Tested for Herpes?

The CDC doesn’t recommend routine testing for herpes. Individuals who are diagnosed with genital herpes but who do not have symptoms typically don’t change their sexual behavior. Therefore, routine testing has not been effective at preventing the spread of the virus. It is also possible to get a false positive result from a herpes test, which is another reason the CDC doesn’t encourage routine use of the test.

When Should I Get Tested for Herpes?

According to the CDC, there are three primary instances when you should consider getting tested for herpes.

  • If you have genital symptoms consistent with herpes
  • If your sex partner has been diagnosed with herpes
  • If you want a complete STD examination

A thorough STD exam is recommended if you have multiple sex partners so you can protect both yourself and others as effectively as possible.

What Are the Symptoms of Herpes?

Herpes symptoms only occur during periodic outbreaks. The first herpes outbreak usually happens within two weeks of catching the virus. The most noticeable symptom of herpes is the presence of sores which may look like blisters or pimples. These crust over, form a scab, and gradually heal over the course of two to four weeks. You might also experience flu-like symptoms such as headache, fever, and swollen glands during the first episode. Some people experience painful urination as well.

Recurrent outbreaks are milder than the first one. These lesions usually heal within two to 12 days. While sores typically appear on the genitals, they may also occur on the buttocks or thighs. Herpes sores can be mistaken for pimples, ingrown hairs, razor burn, hemorrhoids, or insect bites. Many people with herpes are unaware they have the virus.

What’s the Difference Between HSV-1 and HSV-2?

There are two types of HSV. HSV-1 is transmitted through oral contact. You can catch HSV-1 through mouth-to-mouth contact or through oral contact with the genitals. The sores associated with HSV-1 are often referred to as cold sores. Though they typically appear around the mouth, HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes.

HSV-2 is a sexually transmitted infection that primarily impacts the genitals. HSV-2 is spread through contact with the genitals, skin, fluids, or sores of someone with the virus. If HSV-2 comes into contact with the oral membranes, it may also cause sores on the mouth. Both types of herpes may spread even when symptoms are not evident and are lifelong viruses with no cure.

What Should I Do If I Test Positive for Herpes?

If you test positive for herpes, speak with your local healthcare provider about the best course of action for your health and lifestyle. There is no cure for herpes. However, you can take prescription antiviral medication such as Acyclovir (Zovirax) or Valacyclovir (Valtrex). These medications offer several benefits.

  • Help sores heal faster in your first outbreak
  • Reduce the frequency of outbreaks
  • Minimize the chance of spreading herpes to a partner
  • Lessen the severity of symptoms in later outbreaks
  • Shorten the duration of later outbreaks

If you’ve been previously diagnosed with herpes, Nurx can prescribe oral or genital herpes treatment online and deliver the medication to your door with free shipping. To request herpes treatment from Nurx, get started here.

If you’re concerned that you may have herpes, it’s best to speak with your local healthcare provider. Herpes testing is not standard. If you simply ask for STD or STI testing, a herpes test may or may not be included. Discuss your concerns openly with your healthcare provider to make sure you’re getting the appropriate testing for your needs.

Further Reading

Genital Herpes Screening FAQ, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Herpes Signs and Symptoms, American Sexual Health Association

Herpes simplex virus, World Health Organization

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