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Oral Herpes Testing & Treatment

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Oral herpes is a common name for HSV-1, though HSV-1 can be located both orally or genitally. Herpes tests are usually performed when symptoms are present. The most identifiable oral herpes symptom is a cold sore, which is no cause for alarm. Doctors are more likely to have you test for herpes when you are experiencing an outbreak of genital herpes symptoms.

There are multiple ways to perform a herpes test.

Take Charge of Your Health

Oral herpes can be transmitted by kissing, sharing eating utensils or drinks, or during sex. Since oral herpes can be contracted from both Type 1 and Type 2 strains of the Herpes Simplex Virus, our doctors recommend getting tested for both of these HSV strains at the same time.

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Types of Testing for Oral Herpes

Herpes viral culture

A herpes viral culture is only taken when symptoms are present, more specifically when sores or lesions are present. For the test to be performed, a doctor must take a sample of skin cells and fluid from the affected area; depending on the progression of your symptoms, this can be done by either swabbing or scraping the affected area which can be uncomfortable. The sample is then taken to a lab and monitored (up to 7 days) for the growth of the virus. If the virus grows or the fluid further infects cells that are being monitored, then you do have herpes.1

It is best that this test is performed within 48 hours of the sore’s appearance. Unfortunately, this test has the highest rate of false negatives because if the sores are too small or if they’ve already begun to heal over, then the results are not as accurate. Getting tested within the short 48-hour window can also be an inconvenience.

Herpes virus antigen detection test

Similar to the viral culture test, the antigen detection test still requires symptoms to be at their peak, and sores to be swabbed. The cells provided from your sample will be applied to a microscopic slide and examined for antigens of the herpes virus. This is sometimes done in place of or consecutively with the herpes viral culture test.2

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test

Once again, the sample collected for a PCR test can come from an existing sore or lesion. However, the cells needed for this sample can also be taken from blood or spinal fluid. A spinal fluid sample for a PCR test is most often used in extreme (but rare) cases when it is suspected that herpes has caused an infection near or within the brain.3

Antibody test

Also known as a blood test or a serum herpes simplex antibody test, this is the least invasive herpes test there is and the method we choose to test with. A small sample of blood is drawn (usually from the arm) and no undressing or inspection of symptoms is required. Your blood is inspected for antibodies that your body may have developed to fight the virus. This test can be performed even when symptoms aren’t present, as antibodies to the virus will remain in your system for life.4

How is OUR test performed believes that you have the right to know your status regardless of whether symptoms are affecting you or not, which is why you’re able to purchase a herpes antibody blood test, without any type of physical inspection.

You simply select your test, choose the lab closest to you, visit at your earliest convenience, and a lab technician will draw a sample of blood. Your blood is then inspected for antibodies to the herpes virus, and you receive results in 1-2 business days.

Who should get tested and how often?

The CDC only recommends testing for herpes when symptoms are apparent. Herpes testing is not often recommended for people without symptoms. This is because diagnosing genital herpes in someone without symptoms has not shown any change in the sexual behavior (e.g., wearing a condom or not having sex) nor has it stopped the virus from spreading.5

When to get tested (incubation period)

A herpes infection incubation period will normally be within the range of 2-12 days (a common average of 4 days after initial exposure). 6

Though the CDC does not recommend getting tested unless symptoms occur, if you do get tested, we recommend waiting up to 6 weeks after potential exposure, to ensure that your body has built up enough antibodies for a test to detect it, thus avoiding a false-negative (a result that shows you do not have herpes without accurate proof).

Diagnosis & Interpreting Results

Different labs provide different results for the same test. Some herpes test results may be phrased as positive, negative, yes, no, or may even provide a reference range indicating whether you are normal or not. If there is ever any confusion over what your results mean, we encourage you to call in and speak to a certified health education specialist. 7

What does it mean when your results say:

  • Positive: indicates that you do have the herpes virus
  • Negative: indicates that you do not have the herpes virus
  • Yes: indicates that you do have the herpes virus
  • No: indicates that you do not have the herpes virus
  • Abnormal: indicates that you do have the herpes virus
  • Normal: indicates that you do not have the herpes virus
  • Equivocal: indicates that your test results were unclear
  • Undetermined: indicates that your test results were unclear
  • Reference Range: If you only see numbers on your results, these are most likely a reference range, that shows how many antibodies your body had built up against the virus. Because of variation in lab equipment and standards, different ranges can mean different things for the same test, depending on the lab and region that you are in. Your results should show whether you are within the desired range or not, but if there is ever any confusion, you should call in and speak to one of our certified health education specialists for help interpreting your results.

What if You Test Positive?

If you test positive for herpes, then you have the herpes virus. There is no way of knowing whether you have oral herpes or genital herpes unless the symptoms occur orally or genitally. As there is no cure for herpes, there is nothing that can be done to cure the virus, except to treat symptoms as they occur.


Is There a Herpes Cure?

No, there is no cure for herpes. The virus is difficult to study, as it hides within the DNA, and research has not been able to find a permanent fix. However, treatment has been developed to help alleviate symptoms.

Is There a Herpes Treatment?

Yes, there is herpes treatment to lessen the severity of symptoms. But it is only necessary when symptoms are present. There are both topical and oral options for herpes treatment, however, studies have shown that oral treatment works best.

There are three FDA-approved antiviral medications that can be used to treat genital herpes:

  • Acyclovir
  • Valacyclovir
  • Famciclovir

Oral herpes generally causes the common cold sore. Tried and true cold sore home-remedies include the following:

  • Witch hazel
  • Peppermint
  • Lemon
  • Licorice powder
  • Aloe vera gel
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin C

What Happens if Left Untreated?

Nothing will happen if herpes is left untreated. Symptoms are not frequent, they usually go away on their own, and they usually become less frequent and severe with time.

Can You Get Re-infected and Should You be Retested?

Once you have herpes, it will be a part of your DNA for the rest of your life, so you will not be re-infected and it’s not necessary to be retested. It is, however, still possible to be infected with the HSV-2 or genital herpes even after having HSV-1, so it’s important to continue to test for HSV.8

When can you have sex again?

The CDC believes that your sex life should continue as normal after being diagnosed with herpes. It’s important to communicate the risks to your partner because there is always a small risk of transmitting HSV-1 either orally or genitally. If your HSV-1 virus is located orally, then avoid kissing and oral sex when a cold sore (especially open) is present. 8

  1. “Herpes Viral Culture of Lesion: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  2. “Herpes Tests.” Herpes Tests | Michigan Medicine.
  3. Herpes Tests.
  4. “Herpes Testing.” American Sexual Health Association.
  5. “CDC – Genital Herpes Screening.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  6. “STD Facts - Genital Herpes (Detailed Version).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  7. “Reference Ranges and What They Mean.” Lab Tests Online.
  8. “STD Facts - Genital Herpes (Detailed Version).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medically Reviewed by on February 1, 2022

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