Diagnosis of Genital Herpes

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Doctors can often identify genital herpes if lesions are present. However, this window of opportunity may be easily missed. The doctor may choose to test for STDs based on your symptoms, medical history, and sexual history.

Many may feel anxious or embarrassed about discussing sexual history, but an accurate history is important to guiding health care. Home test kits are widely available, but they are not as accurate as testing at a doctor's office. If you choose to use a test kit, it is important to follow-up with a doctor, regardless of the results.

Testing can distinguish between HSV-1 and HSV-2 which will help guide your treatment plan.

Viral Culture

If sores are present, a swab will be brushed over an open sore or blister to collect some cells. The cells are then tested to see if the virus is present. It is recommended that this culture test be taken soon after symptoms appear.

This type of test is not always reliable, though. If the sore is healing or if there are recurrent outbreaks, the test may give a false-negative. This means that the test reports that herpes isn't present when it actually is.

Polymerase Chain Reaction

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a molecular diagnostic test. It detects genetic material of the virus. Like the viral culture, it can give a false-negative but, the PCR test is much more accurate.

Blood Tests

Blood tests may be done to look for herpes simplex virus (HSV) antibodies. Antibodies are created by the immune system to fight foreign materials like viruses. Specific antibodies are made for specific viruses. If the blood tests show HSV antibodies, you are most likely infected with the virus.

Costs may prohibit some from seeking testing. Local community health or family planning centers may offer testing services including some free services.

Costs may prohibit some from seeking testing. Local community health or family planning centers may offer testing services including some free services.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: David Horn, MD
  • Review Date: 05/2014 -
  • Update Date: 10/15/2014 -
  • Beauman JG. Genital herpes: A review. Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(8):1527-1534.

  • Genital herpes—CDC fact sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/stdfact-herpes-detailed.htm. Updated February 13, 2013. Accessed October 15, 2014.

  • Herpes genitalis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated September 8, 2014. Accessed October 15, 2014.

  • Workowski KA, Berman S, et al. Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2010. MMWR. 2010;59(No. RR-12):1-110.