What is the best test to detect herpes in skin lesions?

Michele Sullivan, Richard Sams, Barbara Jamieson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


More than 50 million individuals in the United States have genital herpes. The diagnosis of genital herpes based on clinical history and physical examination is often inaccurate. Clinical suspicion needs to be confirmed by laboratory testing because it has a direct impact on counseling and prognosis. Viral culture is still the gold standard test for the detection of HSV; however, the rate of positive cultures depends on the stage of the lesion, the quality of the specimen, and the transport conditions. A British study found the rate of virus recovery for early vesicles to be 52% to 93%. This dropped to 41% to 72% if midstage ulcers were present. Finally, the detection for late-stage crusted lesions was only 19% to 27%. Another disadvantage is that culture is labor-intensive. A positive culture takes an average of 3 days to grow, whereas a negative culture must incubate for 10 days. PCR techniques are more sensitive and results can be available in less than 4 hours. In 110 clinical samples from dermal or genital lesions of patients with suspected HSV infection, the sensitivity of PCR was 98% (positive likelihood ratio [LR+] = ∞; negative likelihood ratio [LR-] = 0.02) compared with 73% (LR+ = ∞; LR- = 0.27) for culture. The specificities of both were 100%. In London, 233 samples from patients at a genitourinary medicine clinic were tested with both viral culture and PCR. HSV was detected in 79 samples by culture and 132 samples by PCR. The detection by PCR was higher in early as well as late stages of infection and in both first and recurrent episodes. The reference standard for these studies was not an independent standard, but a positive result on both tests or modified versions of the PCR test. The use of a version of the test of interest (PCR) as part of the reference standard, while probably unavoidable in this situation, will tend inflate the sensitivity and specificity. In another study, daily sampling of lesions in patients with known HSV infections detected HSV DNA on 15 of 17 days with PCR and only 3 of 17 days with culture. This suggests that PCR is more effective in detecting early, as well as late, stages of infection. Currently PCR is more expensive, but it may become cheaper because of decreased labor expense when compared with culture. Genital herpes may also be detected with enzyme immunoassay testing in as little as 5 hours. In a study using 275 samples from genital lesions, HSV was detected in 65% of the antigen tests and 53% of the viral cultures. The sensitivity of this method is equal to culture for early lesions, but much higher in late-stage lesions (58% vs 26%). Serologic tests are often used to detect HSV because they can differentiate between HSV-1 and HSV-2. There is an FDA-approved point-of-care test called POCkit that gives results from capillary blood or serum during an office visit. These tests are 80% to 98% sensitive and more than 96% specific. Unfortunately, they are not readily available in all countries. Other detection methods include the Tzanck smear, which is only 40% to 50% sensitive compared with culture, and the Pap smear, which is 60% to 70% sensitive. These tests should not be the sole method for the diagnosis of HSV. They cannot differentiate between HSV 1 and HSV 2; furthermore, the Tzanck prep will give a positive result if varicella zoster virus is present. If these tests are positive, confirmatory testing specific for HSV should be performed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)346-348
Number of pages3
JournalJournal of Family Practice
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2006
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Family Practice


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