There’s herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). “HSV-1 and HSV-2 are different but closely related viruses,” says Dr. Christine Johnston, MPH, who is the Associate Medical Director of the Virology Research Clinic at the University of Washington. Johnston explains that both are transmitted through close mucosal or skin contact with infected secretions. HSV-1 primarily causes oral outbreaks, also known as cold sores, and HSV-2 usually causes genital outbreaks. But HSV-1 can also cause genital outbreaks through oral-to-genital contact, according to the CDC. According to Johnston, genital HSV-1 is less likely to recur than HSV-2, and there’s less asymptomatic shedding (transmitting the virus without realizing it) with HSV-1 than with HSV-2.
Laboratory testing is often used to confirm a diagnosis of genital herpes. Laboratory tests include culture of the virus, direct fluorescent antibody (DFA) studies to detect virus, skin biopsy, and polymerase chain reaction to test for presence of viral DNA. Although these procedures produce highly sensitive and specific diagnoses, their high costs and time constraints discourage their regular use in clinical practice.
Herpes is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, not through blood or saliva. Cullins explains that someone with HSV can be shedding the herpes virus without having an outbreak (known as asymptomatic virus shedding), and infect somebody that way. Suppressive antiviral medications, like acyclovir or valacyclovir, inhibit HSV replication, which decreases shedding but does not completely eliminate it, says Johnston.
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.