Tests for Diagnosis
Accurate testing is important for genital herpes. Receiving the wrong diagnosis can be traumatic. Some people have lived decades believing they were infected because a doctor didn’t test them properly and gave a simple visual diagnosis or they were diagnosed by their symptoms alone. It’s easy to mistake genital herpes symptoms for something else.
If you have sores on your genitals, a doctor can take a sample from a sore and look for the herpes simplex virus (HSV) in it. One test is a cell culture. Any viruses in the sample are allowed to multiply so that they’re easy to find under a microscope.
Another test is the direct fluorescent antibody test. A solution containing HSV antibodies and a fluorescent dye is added to the sample. Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system in response to an infection. If the virus is present in the sample, the antibodies stick to it and glow when viewed under a special microscope.
These tests are good because they can tell the difference between the two types of HSV. Contrary to what some physicians say, it is important to know which type you have. If you’re infected with type 2 (HSV-2), you may have outbreaks more often than would if you had type 1 (HSV-1).
Knowing which type you have also gives an indication as to how you were infected. HSV-1 usually infects the genitals through oral sex, and HSV-2 usually is passed on during vaginal or anal sex. For help with these terms, see the Glossary.
These tests may give a false-negative result if the sores have already begun healing, or if it’s not the first time you’ve had symptoms. A positive result from one of these tests is very accurate, however.
Blood Tests for Genital Herpes
A blood test can detect HSV antibodies even when you have no symptoms. A false-negative result from a blood test is possible if you have been infected recently. It can take up to several weeks for HSV antibodies to show up in the blood.
False-positive test results are possible. If you test positive, but your risk for getting the virus is low, you may need to be tested again.
Tzanck and PCR Tests
Other ways to detect the herpes virus include the Tzanck test and the PCR test. A Tzanck test places a sample from a sore on a microscope slide and stains it with a dye. Cells that are infected with HSV look different from those that aren’t. This test is not very accurate, so health experts don’t recommend it.
The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test looks for pieces of the virus’ DNA. It’s an accurate test, but doctors have not decided how it should be used to diagnose genital herpes, so it’s not the preferred method at least at this time.
New tests on the horizon – there are plenty of laboratories working on treatments, tests and cures. At this time, there is no cure for herpes. While the virus can be treated, it cannot be cured.