In order to diagnose herpes, a health care provider can swab an area of visibly active herpes infection or, if symptoms aren’t active, a blood test can be given that measures the number of herpes antibodies present in the body. The antibodies don’t indicate herpes itself, but rather show the immune system’s response to the presence of the virus in the body. It’s important to note that sometimes a swab can give false negative results since herpes lesions need to be large enough to yield enough detectable virus and if the outbreak is already healing it also may not be detected in a swab. (6)
Human herpes virus 3 (HHV3) is also called varicella-zoster virus. HHV3 causes chickenpox. It can also cause a recurrent virus infection of the skin, which is called herpes zoster or shingles. Shingles occurs when dormant varicella-zoster virus from an initial bout of chickenpox becomes reactivated. Like its close relative, HHV1, herpes zoster likes to infect skin cells and nerve cells. This virus may also recur along nerve fibre pathways, causing multiple sores where nerve fibres end on skin cells. Because an entire group of nerve cells is often affected, shingles is generally much more severe than a recurrence of herpes simplex. The lesions generally appear in a band-like or belt-like pattern occurring on one side of the body and are often accompanied by itching, tingling, or even severe pain. Healing usually occurs in 2 to 4 weeks, and scars may remain. Postherpetic neuralgia is a complication of shingles where the pain associated with the infection can persist for months and even years. Most people who experience shingles once do not experience it again.
Recurrent outbreaks of genital herpes may happen, with some patients having four to six outbreaks in the span of a year. Compared to the first infection, subsequent recurrences are less painful and occur in shorter periods than the first infection. There are some patients, however, who don’t have another outbreak for many years or even once more during their lifetime.11
That being said, if on paper the HSV titres are high, indicating a high viral load in the body, this can be an indicator of an impending flare. Knowing this, we can prescribe antiviral medications with the aim of suppressing the virus activity. The idea is that we reduce the viral load of HSV, therefore helping the body’s immunity better contain the virus.
It should not be confused with conditions caused by other viruses in the herpesviridae family such as herpes zoster, which is caused by varicella zoster virus. The differential diagnosis includes hand, foot and mouth disease due to similar lesions on the skin. Lymphangioma circumscriptum and dermatitis herpetiformis may also have a similar appearance.
With the first outbreak of herpes virus infection, an individual may also experience nonspecific flu-like symptoms like fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache, and muscle aches. It is also possible to have herpes virus infection without having any symptoms or signs, or having signs and symptoms that are so mild that the infection is mistaken for another condition.
The causes of reactivation are uncertain, but several potential triggers have been documented. A 2009 study showed the protein VP16 plays a key role in reactivation of the dormant virus. Changes in the immune system during menstruation may play a role in HSV-1 reactivation. Concurrent infections, such as viral upper respiratory tract infection or other febrile diseases, can cause outbreaks. Reactivation due to other infections is the likely source of the historic terms 'cold sore' and 'fever blister'.
A doctor will base a presumptive diagnosis on information provided by the patient and on the physical examination. The characteristic appearance of the herpes sores leaves little doubt about the diagnosis, so the typical appearance of the sores is key to the diagnosis. This appearance helps distinguish oral herpes from oral thrush, shingles, gonorrhea, and syphilis. In addition, chapped or sunburned lips can resemble oral herpes, but the tissue stain (Tzanck smear, see below) shows no virus-induced cell changes. Further testing is usually not necessary but is sometimes done.