The health care provider collects the sample from a skin sore (lesion). The sample is sent to a lab. There, it is placed in a special dish (culture). It is then watched to see if the herpes simplex virus or substances related to the virus grow. Special tests may also be done to determine whether it is herpes simplex virus type 1 or 2.
How to Prepare for the Test
The sample must be collected during the acute phase of infection. This is the worst part of an outbreak. It is also when the skin lesions are at their worst.
How the Test will Feel
When the sample is collected, you may feel an uncomfortable scraping or sticky sensation. Sometimes a sample from the throat or eyes is needed. This involves rubbing a sterile swab against the eye or in the throat.
Why the Test is Performed
The test is done to confirm herpes simplex infection. The herpes virus causes genital herpes. Or it can cause cold sores of the mouth and lips.
The diagnosis is often made by physical examination (the health care provider looking at the sores). The cultures and other tests are used to confirm the diagnosis.
This test is most likely accurate when a person is newly infected, that is, during the first outbreak.
A normal (negative) result means that the herpes simplex virus did not grow in the laboratory dish and the skin sample used in the test did not contain any herpes virus.
Be aware that a normal (negative) culture does not always mean that you do not have a herpes infection or have not had one in the past.
What Abnormal Results Mean
An abnormal (positive) result may mean that you have an active infection with herpes simplex virus. Herpes infections include herpes genitalis, which is genital herpes, or cold sores on the lips or in the mouth.
If the culture is positive for herpes, you may have recently become infected. Or you may have become infected in the past and are currently having an outbreak.
Risks include slight bleeding or infection in the area where the skin sample was removed.
Costello M, Sabatini LM, Yungbluth M. Viral infections. In: McPherson RA, Pincus MR, eds. Henry's Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 55.
Susan Storck, MD, FACOG, Chief, Eastside Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, Bellevue, Washington; Clinical Teaching Faculty, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.