Herpes Test: What You Should Know

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 30, 2022
3 min read

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease. It’s caused by two different viruses called herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2).

You get genital herpes by having sex -- vaginal, oral, or anal -- with someone who already has it.

Thinking you have genital herpes naturally can bring up strong emotions. Talk to your doctor about getting tested. It could help you to learn more about the disease and talk honestly with your sexual partner. You might want to join a support group, too.

Many people with herpes don’t have any symptoms. If symptoms do show up, you might first feel tingling or burning near your genitals.

You might then get blisters around your genitals, anus, thighs, or buttocks. When the blisters break, they leave sores that can take a few weeks to heal. They usually won’t leave any scars.

To check for herpes, your doctor usually does a physical exam and then likely orders one of these tests:

  • Viral culture
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test
  • Blood test

If you get a “positive” result from the viral culture or PCR tests, it likely means you have herpes. .

A “negative” viral culture or PCR result could mean you don’t have genital herpes. But in some cases, a person could still have genital herpes and a negative result. That's likely due to other factors related to how much virus there is in the sores.

You don’t need to do anything to prepare for these tests. They don’t take long, but how soon you get your results depends on the type of test and the lab that does it.

For this test, your doctor scrapes or swabs one of your sores to take a sample. A lab then checks the sample for the herpes virus. It can take up to 7 days to get your results.

This test is best used within 48 hours of when you first see symptoms. After that time, the level of herpes virus starts to drop. That means there’s a higher chance the test could say you don’t have herpes when you really do.

As with the viral culture, your doctor swabs or scrapes a sample from one of your sores. A lab gets the sample and looks for genes from the herpes virus. PCR test results usually come back to you within 24 hours.

You’re more likely to get this test if you have symptoms but it’s been longer than 48 hours since they showed up. In this case, you can rely on the results from this test more than the viral culture.

A small amount of blood is sent to a lab that then checks it for herpes “antibodies.” Those are something your body makes to fight the virus.

You might get a blood test if you think you have been exposed but you don’t have any symptoms.

Labs may use different types of blood tests. With some you can get results the same day, but others may take up to 3 weeks.

There’s no cure for genital herpes, but it can be treated.

If you do have it, your doctor can help you manage it. There are drugs that can shorten or prevent outbreaks, ease symptoms, and lower the chances your sex partners will get it.