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Home / Herpes Virus / All you need to know about herpes (HSV) testing

All you need to know about herpes (HSV) testing

Learn about how you can get tested for herpes simplex virus

The herpes simplex virus, often shortened to just herpes, is an extremely contagious virus that results in several different types of herpes infections, including cold sores and genital herpes. The main symptoms of herpes include a bumpy red rash, itchiness and painful blisters (herpes sores).

Once you contract herpes it unfortunately does not leave your body and is still an infectious disease, so it’s vital to contain it and prevent it from spreading to others. That is why you should get tested if you notice any symptoms.

If you’re not sure how to get tested, we’ve got you covered! Keep reading to find out all you need to know about herpes testing here at euroClinix.

What is herpes?

Herpes simplex virus infections result in painful and itchy lesions across the skin and are transmitted via physical and sexual contact with the infected area. Different strains of the virus affect the skin differently. There are two main strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) results in cold sores or oral herpes (herpes labialis), where the blisters occur on and around the mouth. It is typically contracted from having mouth-to-mouth contact with someone who has an active bout of the virus.

Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) results in genital herpes which causes painful lesions to occur around the genital area and rectum. Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) meaning it is transmitted from one sexual partner to another via skin-to-skin contact, or mouth-to-skin in the case of oral sex.

Whilst herpes infections also come in the form of shingles and chickenpox (varicella zoster virus, VZV), HSV types 1 & 2 are the most common and contagious forms. They are also the ones you would most likely need to get tested for. Doctors can typically diagnose shingles from your symptoms alone. The characteristic symptoms, as well as a rash, are flu-like symptoms such as a fever, chills and nausea.

When should I get tested?

You should always go and get tested as soon as you notice a first outbreak, especially if you develop symptoms of genital herpes. The sooner you get a diagnosis, the quicker you can get treatment and relieve the uncomfortable symptoms.

If you have a cold sore, you usually don’t need to get tested. You can just get treatment online or from a pharmacy as soon as you feel the tingle of an incoming cold sore. If you have had a cold sore for more than 10 days however, you should go consult your healthcare provider.

Why should I get tested?

A rash anywhere may not necessarily be a herpes outbreak; it could be multiple skin conditions such as a fungal infection or eczema. Getting tested will give you peace of mind and a clear diagnosis of your symptoms.

It’s especially important that you and any recent sexual partners get tested for a HSV-2 infection (genital herpes infection), as you can unknowingly spread the virus to others. It’s generally good practice to get routinely tested for STIs if you regularly change sexual partners. In fact, only 1 in 3 people infected with HSV have been diagnosed.

People who are more at risk of getting complications should also get tested as soon as possible. If you have a weakened immune system ( such as those undergoing cancer treatment or have HIV/AIDS) or you’re a pregnant woman, you are more at risk of developing complications and may need to be treated by a specialist. The sooner you diagnose your symptoms, the sooner you can curb any risk of complications.

It may feel uncomfortable or embarrassing, especially if it's your first time getting tested, but it’ll help you contain the virus if you do have it and manage future recurrent outbreaks.

How do you test for herpes (HSV)?

There are several different types of tests available to diagnose HSV.

Your doctor is the first person you should consult if you have any uncertainty about your symptoms. Whilst most GP practices don’t offer tests for herpes simpelx virus infections or other sexually transmitted diseases, they can direct you to somewhere you can if they think it’s necessary.

Closeup of male doctor taking notes

Swab tests

The main way to get tested for a genital herpes infection is via a swab test. These tests are free at sexual health clinics (GUM, genitourinary medicine) but are also available to purchase online through some self-testing services. Sexual health clinics will only test for genital herpes (HSV-2), but most self-testing kits will also test for both genital herpes and cold sores (HSV-1). Make sure you check the fine print before ordering any tests.

You will be asked a bit about your sexual history and your previous sex partners, either by a doctor or online. A nurse (or yourself in the case of self-testing kits) will then take a small swab of one of your blisters which will be sent to a laboratory for testing. It will most likely undergo one of two tests.

Viral culture tests are the traditional method of testing samples. It involves placing viral samples in a line and assessing their ability to infect. If they observe cell changes, then the culture and therefore the test result is positive.

Your sample may alternatively undergo nucleic amplification testing (NAAT). It works by making copies of the viral genetic material if any is present in a sample. They are able to reliably detect very small amounts of viral DNA, meaning they are unlikely to return a false negative or false positive response. A NAAT could involve various methods including RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction).

The type of laboratory test used will not affect your results and both are highly accurate. However, experts suggest viral culture tests tend to be more labour-intensive and time-consuming so may be phased out in favour of NAAT in the future. Some virology laboratories already exclusively use NAAT.

Doctor holding cotton swab

Blood tests

Blood tests are available both from sexual health clinics (and in some purchasable test kits) for those who don’t have physical symptoms. A lot of cases of genital and oral herpes are asymptomatic, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have bouts in the future.

Serum herpes simplex antibodies tests are blood tests that look for the presence of antibodies to the herpes virus. Antibodies are proteins that make up part of your immune system that the body uses to defend itself against invading pathogens such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. If you test positive for antibodies, it means your body has had to fight off the herpes virus at some stage and therefore you have been infected with either HSV-1 or 2.

An NHS sexual health clinic will not typically do blood tests for HSV infections, however some private clinics offer this service. In a clinic, a nurse will take a small blood sample from a vein in your arm using a thin needle.

If you have to take a blood sample yourself, most likely through a self-testing kit, it will typically involve a finger prick test. It involves pricking your finger with a small needle, called a lancet, and squeezing your finger to collect blood into a small tube.

Nurse preparing male patient for drawing blood.

What happens next?

If you receive a positive result for a herpes simplex virus infection, the next step is antiviral treatment.

There are a selection of antiviral medications that can be prescribed for quick and effective treatment of herpes. The quicker you get tested, the quicker you can alleviate any uncomfortable symptoms.

You may experience recurrent bouts of herpes after an initial outbreak, but once you know the diagnosis of genital herpes or cold sores, you can simply reorder treatment without getting tested. If you have a weak immune system, or get frequent bouts of symptoms, you may require a longer course of antiviral treatment to manage symptoms.

If you don’t want the hassle of an in-person appointment and want your medication directly and discreetly delivered to your door, then why not order antiviral treatment with euroClinix. Here, we offer Aciclovir, Valtrex and Famvir antiviral tablets for the treatment of herpes infections including genital herpes.

Need herpes treatment?

Find out more here

Medically reviewed by
Dr. Mahesh Chhaya MBBS Written by our editorial team
Last reviewed 09-02-2022
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