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What is the most effective way to test for herpes?
I want to get a test for herpes but I don't know what I should look for in a test. What's the best and most accurate way to get tested for herpes simplex virus?
Terri Warren, MS, RN, ANP on August 26, 2011
There are basically two possible situations to consider...one where you have symptoms (e.g., sores, rashes, blisters, ulcers in the skin or cracks in the area between waist and mid-thigh); and one where you have no symptoms at all.
If you have symptoms, the best way to test is a swab test from the symptomatic area. To do a swab test, your healthcare practitioner will swab the open sore and take a sample of the virus.
There are two types of swab tests: culture and PCR (polymerase chain reaction). Culture has been around for many years and PCR is newer and considered by almost everyone to be a far superior test. It can identify smaller amounts of virus at earlier and later stages of an outbreak than a culture test can. A PCR sample is also very stable on its way to the lab, unlike a culture sample. The only drawback to PCR is it’s expense...but, in my opinion, it’s worth the money if you’re able to see your healthcare provider during an actual outbreak.
If you no longer have herpes symptoms, the other way to test for herpes is an antibody test. Antibody tests look for specific antibodies that a person’s body makes in response to an infection...in this case, the herpes simplex virus. The only antibody test you want is called “IgG.” The newer IgG tests are type-specific...that is, they can distinguish between the two strains of the herpes virus (HSV-1 from HSV-2). In fact, experts no longer recommend the old IgM tests because IgG is far more accurate.
The only drawback of antibody tests is that you have to wait a while after a possible exposure to an infection for the test to be accurate. It can take anywhere from 3-12 weeks for your body to make the antibody that can be picked up by this test.
Waiting can be a challenge, for sure. If you want to balance the challenge of waiting for an answer versus the risk of testing too early, some doctors suggest testing 4-6 weeks after a possible exposure.
For more information about testing and other information about herpes, you might be interested in our Expert Guide to Herpes 1 + 2.
Thanks again for sharing your question.
Warren is a Nurse Practitioner and owner of Westover Heights Clinic in Oregon. She is a renown expert and author in the field of genital herpes research, diagnosis and treatment. Warren was educated at Oregon Health and Sciences University and the University of Portland.