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Genital Herpes Health Center

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Herpes Tests

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 infection.

A different herpes virus (called varicella zoster) causes chickenpox and shingles.

Why It Is Done

A test for herpes may be done to:

  • Find out whether HSV is causing sores around the mouth or in the genital area.
  • Find out which virus type (HSV-1 or HSV-2) is causing sores around the mouth or in the genital area.
  • Find out whether the sex partner of a person with genital herpes may be infected with HSV.
  • Diagnose a herpes infection in a newborn baby whose mother has genital herpes.

How To Prepare

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).

How It Is Done

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:

  • Wrap an elastic band around your upper arm to stop the flow of blood. This makes the veins below the band larger so it is easier to put a needle into the vein.
  • Clean the needle site with alcohol.
  • Put the needle into the vein. More than one needle stick may be needed.
  • Attach a tube to the needle to fill it with blood.
  • Remove the band from your arm when enough blood is collected.
  • Put a gauze pad or cotton ball over the needle site as the needle is removed.
  • Put pressure on the site and then put on a bandage.

How It Feels

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.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: December 20, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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