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How is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?

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Updated August 06, 2004

Question: How is Genital Herpes Diagnosed?
Answer: Although sores may be visible to the eye, several laboratory tests may be necessary to determine whether the sores are caused by HSV or another infection. The most reliable method of diagnosing genital herpes is by viral culture during which a new lesion is swabbed or scraped with the sample added to a laboratory culture that contains healthy cells. These cells are then examined, a day or two later, under a microscope that shows changes to the cells that indicate the growth of the herpes virus.

Other methods of diagnosing herpes are available to clinicians, however it's important to understand that the herpes virus is extremely hard to find and the fact that a clinician fails to detect the virus in an active sore does not mean that a person does not have genital herpes.

Occasionally, due to the difficulty of diagnosing herpes clinicians may misdiagnose sores as something else such as ingrown hairs.

A blood test is available that detects antibodies to the virus, however this test cannot tell whether a person has an active genital herpes infection. The blood test can only determine whether a person has been previously infected by HSV and has produced antibodies to the virus. Although antibodies are present they do not protect a person from subsequent outbreaks of herpes. This blood test also cannot distinguish between oral or genital herpes. New blood tests which have the ability to distinguish between HSV type 1 and 2 are currently developed, however they are not available to the general physician population and are used mainly in research hospitals.

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