Find out when you should (and shouldn't!) get tested for herpes.
You should get tested for herpes (either oral herpes—HSV-1, or genital herpes, HSV-2) if you have symptoms of herpes (sores around your mouth or genitals), or if you believe you may have been exposed to the virus.
Most people who spread HSV-1 or HSV-2 don’t know they have it—most carriers never have any symptoms (or very mild symptoms) of the virus. Because of this, an estimated 70-80% of Americans are carriers of HSV-1, and an estimated 16% are carriers of HSV-2.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn’t recommend routine screenings for HSV-2:
“There is no evidence that diagnosing genital herpes with a blood test in someone without symptoms would change their sexual behavior and stop the virus from spreading. In addition, without knowing the benefits of testing, the risk of shaming and stigmatizing people outweighs the potential benefits. For these reasons, testing everyone for herpes is not recommended at this time.”
They also note that there’s a risk of false positives. Although that’s often not a reason to avoid getting tested, in the case of HSV-2, which is incurable, lifelong, and usually relatively minor in potential harm, “the harm of a possible false positive test may be a greater concern than the benefits of an actual diagnosis.”
So if you don’t have any symptoms, just be aware: limit your sharing of straws, utensils, toothbrushes, etc. And use safer sex methods—even with oral sex, as HSV-1 can be spread from the mouth to the genitals. Doctors can often diagnose herpes just by looking at it, so if you have pus-filled, clustered sores on your mouth or genitals, make an appointment. Of course, if you find out a current or former partner tested positive, the CDC says you might want to get tested too if you’re concerned.
The best way to test for HSV is by doing a swab of an open sore (as opposed to the blood tests) so if you have symptoms schedule an appointment to be seen in person as soon as possible. Remember, you have to ask specifically to be tested for HSV-1 and/or HSV-2—for the reasons mentioned above, it’s not part of the routine testing for STIs that sexually active people should undergo on a regular basis. And as always, regardless of symptoms, if anxiety about HSV (or any other illness) is significantly impacting your life, it’s probably worth talking to a doctor just to ease your mind.