Once a person has a herpes infection, they develop antibodies. Herpes antibody tests can allow doctors to see if an individual has antibodies in their system.

Herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Around 67% of the global population under 50 have HSV-1 infection.

A person can have an antibody test to find out if they have HSV. A healthcare professional can take a swab of an active lesion or perform a blood test to find out if a person has ever had herpes.

However, doctors rarely order HSV antibody tests except in certain clinical situations. There is a high chance of false-positive results from antibody tests.

This article will describe the different types of antibody tests, who should have one, and what the results mean.

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HSV is a virus that causes lifelong infection. It can lie dormant in the body for months or years before reactivating.

According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, an active herpes infection can cause symptoms that include:

In people with a weakened immune system, HSV can affect the esophagus, causing herpes esophagitis.

Types of HSV

There are two types of HSV: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 often leads to lesions and sores around the mouth and face. HSV-2 often leads to sores around the genital region.

There is overlap between the two categories of HSV virus, so either can cause sores in other areas of the body.

Learn more about herpes simplex here.

What are herpes antibodies?

Antibodies are proteins the body makes to help fight infection and prevent future infections.

HSV-1 and HSV-2 antibodies are proteins that have formed due to the presence of the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus. An immunoglobulin G (IgG) blood test detects these proteins in the blood and can tell if a person has ever experienced an infection with either virus.

Learn more about antibodies here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not recommend herpes testing for people without symptoms. There is no evidence that having a herpes diagnosis changes people’s sexual behavior and prevents herpes from spreading.

People who are pregnant may wish to have a herpes antibody test. A baby can contract herpes during vaginal childbirth. Herpes can be life threatening to newborn babies.

People may also wish to have a herpes antibody test if they:

  • have had sexual contact with someone with herpes
  • have a specific clinical reason for determining their HSV status
  • have another reason for wanting to know their HSV status, such as having multiple sexual partners

Learn more about herpes and pregnancy here.

There are different tests for HSV. Doctors will choose a test based on a person’s health history and symptoms. Options include the following:

  • Swab test: A healthcare professional uses a swab to take a sample of fluid and cells from a herpes sore. They then order a PCR test or viral culture to determine whether HSV is present. This is the most reliable way to test for HSV. Doctors normally do this as standard procedure before ordering any other sort of test.
  • Blood test: A healthcare professional uses a needle to take a small amount of blood from a vein in a person’s arm.
  • Lumbar puncture: Doctors may use this method if they suspect a person has an infection in the brain or spinal cord. It involves numbing the skin of the lower spine and inserting a thin, hollow needle between two vertebrae to collect cerebrospinal fluid.

A doctor will send samples to a laboratory for testing and a person should get their results within a few days.

HSV tests detect IgG and immunoglobulin M (IgM) antibodies. IgG antibodies are present soon after infection with HSV and remain in the blood for life. A test result showing IGg antibodies will tell a person that they have experienced an infection in the past and that they have antibodies against the virus.

IgM antibodies appear before IgG antibodies but may disappear when the infection is inactive. Testing for IgM antibodies is not a useful way to distinguish between primary and recurrent episodes of HSV infection. Therefore, doctors do not recommend IgM testing.

A positive herpes antibody test cannot tell people where they have HSV infection or when they contracted the infection. It cannot tell if a person was capable of passing on the infection at the time of the test, nor can it tell if specific symptoms are due to herpes.

Once a sample comes back from laboratory analysis, a person will receive one of the following results:

“Normal” or negative

If the results come back negative, the test did not find HSV in the sample. This usually means that a person has not contracted a herpes infection.

However, it sometimes happens that a person does have herpes, but there was not enough of the virus present in the sample to detect it. This is a false-negative result.

If a person has symptoms of herpes, but their test results come back negative, doctors may recommend retesting. They usually recommend a PCR test or viral culture over an antibody test, as these detect primary infection more reliably.

“Abnormal” or positive

If the result comes back positive, HSV was present in the sample. It could indicate that a person has had herpes in the past or that they currently have herpes if they have open sores at the time of the test.

Find out the answers to some commonly asked questions about herpes antibodies below.

Can herpes antibodies go away?

Once a person has herpes, IgG bodies will stay in the body for life. Some people have very few outbreaks throughout their life. They may have fewer antibodies than people who have regular outbreaks.

Can you have a false positive for herpes antibodies?

It is possible to have a false-positive result for herpes antibodies. This means that a person gets a positive result when they do not have the virus.

I tested positive for herpes. What should I do now?

For most people, having herpes does not affect their health or quality of life. To prevent passing on cold sores and genital herpes to others, a person can:

  • avoid kissing others when the virus is active
  • avoid having vaginal, oral, or anal sex when they have sores around the genitals, mouth, or anus
  • use condoms when having sex
  • avoid skin-to-skin contact during an active outbreak
  • avoid sharing towels, toothbrushes, and lipstick when they have sores around the mouth
  • wash their hands well after touching a sore

Having multiple sexual partners can increase the risk of

transmitting STIs such as herpes. People can decrease this risk by openly discussing STI status and prevention with any partners and practicing safe sex.

It is possible for a person to pass on herpes even when they are symptom-free.

There is no cure for herpes. After receiving a positive test result, a person can discuss treatment options with a healthcare professional. Herpes rarely causes serious issues to a person’s health but can be an inconvenience.

Doctors can prescribe antiviral medications to prevent or minimize the risk of further outbreaks. Medications can also reduce the severity and length of outbreaks and reduce symptoms.

Learn about treatment for herpes here.

A herpes antibody test is a simple and typically painless test that can reveal whether a person has ever had a herpes infection. Tests work by looking for antibodies that occur once herpes is in the system.

Doctors usually test for herpes using PCR tests or viral culture because antibody tests have a high rate of false-positive results. PCR and viral culture can detect acute infections more accurately.

Experts do not recommend testing for people who do not have symptoms. If a person knows they have been in close contact with someone with herpes or wishes to have a test for other reasons, especially if they have multiple sexual partners, they can ask a doctor.

Pregnant people with herpes symptoms should have an HSV test as the virus can spread to the fetus and have serious consequences.