Genital Herpes Screening FAQ
Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) cause genital herpes. Most people who have HSV-1 or HSV-2 don’t have symptoms.
People with symptoms can have one or more blisters on or around the genitals, rectum, or mouth. This is known as having an “outbreak.” The blisters break and leave painful sores that may take a week or more to heal.
There are a lot of questions about herpes tests. This page will help you understand CDC’s herpes testing recommendations.
Is it true that genital herpes is hard to diagnose?
Basic fact sheets are presented in plain language for individuals with general questions about sexually transmitted diseases.
Diagnosing genital herpes can be challenging. This is for two main reasons:
- Many people with herpes have no symptoms
A healthcare provider may diagnose herpes by looking at any blisters or sores. They can also take a sample or swab from a blister or sore that is not already crusted over or healing. In fact, the tests that use these samples work best. However, most people with genital herpes do not have symptoms or can mistake them for other skin conditions like a pimple or ingrown hair.
- There are limits to the current tests.
If a patient has no blisters or sores, providers may use a blood test to see if they have herpes. These tests have limits. For example, if a person gets a blood test too soon after an infection, the result could be wrong. A wrong result is also possible when the person has a low risk of infection.
If you’re sexually active, talk openly and honestly with your provider about testing for herpes and other STIs. They can help you decide what is best for you based on your sexual and medical history. These tips can help.
I found out my partner has herpes. When should I get tested?
Talk with your healthcare provider. In addition to recommending specific tests, they can also help guide when you should get tested. When someone gets genital herpes, it can take up to 16 weeks or more after an exposure for the current tests to detect it.
Genital herpes is common. Shouldn’t CDC recommend testing for everyone?
CDC recommends herpes testing for people who have genital symptoms to confirm if they have it. Testing allows a healthcare provider to talk with patients about what to expect in the future. This includes talking about medications that help with symptoms. Providers can also tell patients how to lower the risk of transmitting herpes to sex partner(s).
CDC does not recommend herpes testing for people without symptoms in most situations. This is because of the limits of a herpes blood test and the possibility of a wrong test result. The chances of wrong test results are higher for people who are at low risk of infection.
Blood tests might be useful if:
- You have genital symptoms that could be related to herpes, or
- You have (or have had) a sex partner with genital herpes, or
- Your provider found signs of herpes, but you still need a test to confirm it.
If you are sexually active, talk openly and honestly with your healthcare provider about what tests are right for you. These tips can help.
Does my healthcare provider include a blood test for genital herpes when they test me for “everything” (all STIs)?
Herpes blood tests may or may not be part of the tests your healthcare provider gives you. They may choose tests based on several factors (e.g., number of sex partners, if you had an STI before, etc.).
They will also evaluate you for signs or symptoms of herpes to choose which tests to use. This is why it’s important to talk openly and honestly with your provider during your visit. Ask them which infections they are and are not testing you for and why.
- Sample questions you might ask your provider
- A list of questions your provider might ask you
- Conversation tips
Can testing and treating genital herpes decrease the risk for HIV infection?
No. Studies show that HIV risk is not lowered by genital herpes testing or treatment. Learn more about the link between genital herpes and HIV in this fact sheet.
Why are false positive tests an argument against routine testing for genital herpes, but not for other STIs, which can also have false positives?
False positive test results show that a person has an infection or condition when they do not. This can happen with many kinds of diagnostic tests. However, the chance of a false positive herpes test result is much higher than when testing for STIs like chlamydia or gonorrhea. This is because current herpes tests are not as exact as tests for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
I have genital herpes. Where can I find the latest information about ongoing genital herpes research, including clinical trials?
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) supports research to develop prevention methods and treatments for genital herpes. Details about current research efforts can be found on the NIAID website. NIH also maintains a database with information about clinical trials around the world. This database includes information on all genital herpes studies that are actively recruiting volunteers.