Herpes Viral Culture of Lesion

Written by Darla Burke | Published on June 4, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is the Herpes Viral Culture of Lesion Test?

The herpes viral culture of lesion test, also known as the herpes simplex virus culture, is a laboratory test that is used to determine if a skin sore contains the herpes simplex virus.

Understanding the Herpes Simplex Virus

Herpes simplex virus (HSV) infections are quite common. HSV is typically found in two forms: HSV-1 and HSV-2.


Herpes simplex virus-1 is the main cause of conditions such as cold sores and fever blisters. This virus is spread through casual contact, including sharing of drinking and eating utensils. According to a 2009 study published in Pediatrics in Review, between 60 and 90 percent of adults worldwide have been exposed to HSV-1 (Chayavichitsilp et al., 2009).


Herpes simplex virus-2 is spread through sexual contact with an infected person. HSV-2 is responsible for genital herpes.

Once a person is infected with HSV, there is no cure. Outbreaks of HSV may occur frequently or only once in a person’s lifetime.

Why is the Test Ordered?

Skin sores that have been infected with HSV are often diagnosed in a clinical setting through a physical examination. Even though physicians are often able to identify and diagnose a herpes skin lesion without laboratory testing, there are instances in which diagnosis may be difficult to confirm. When this occurs, your physician may order a herpes viral culture lesion test.

Although herpes infections are not typically life-threatening, there are specific situations in which the virus poses a significant health threat. In particular, the presence of the virus in children, in patients with compromised immune systems, or in patients with HSV infections of the eye, can be life-threatening.

For patients with health complications, such as compromised immune systems, the detection of HSV is vital. As HSV can be life-threatening in these patients, correct diagnosis is needed to ensure that treatment is provided in a timely manner.

Preparation for the Test

For the test to be effective, your doctor will need to collect the skin sample at the height of the outbreak. You may experience some discomfort because of allowing the infection to progress before screening. While the herpes viral culture of lesion test can be performed on patients with active infections, the most accurate results will be obtained when the patient is first experiencing an outbreak.

How is the Test Administered?

The herpes viral culture of lesion test is performed by collecting a skin sample from the patient’s sore. The test is typically performed in a clinical setting by a qualified healthcare provider. Scraping of the sore to collect fluid and cells from the surrounding skin is required.

The skin sample is then placed in a laboratory container and transported to a lab for analysis.

At the lab, the sample is placed in a dish and observed for 16 hours to seven days to monitor the growth of the virus. A negative result (no virus growing) means just that the virus did not grow. It does not guarantee that you do not have an HSV infection. Results from the test are typically reported from the lab to the physician within two to four days.

What are the Risks of the Test?

Patients undergoing the test may also experience some discomfort during the procedure. For skin lesions, patients may encounter a scraping or sticky sensation. For patients with lesions in the throat or eye, a sterile swab must be used for sample collection. This may result in some discomfort due to rubbing the swab on the lesion.

The risks of the herpes viral culture of lesion are minimal. These risks are associated with any type of procedure that requires scraping of the skin and include:

  • bleeding at the site where the sample was removed
  • infection at the site where the same was removed
  • pain or discomfort at the sample site

Interpreting Your Results

Results of the herpes viral culture of lesion test are based on whether or not the virus grows from the skin sample in a laboratory.

If the virus does not grow, then the results are negative. This means that the patient does not have an active herpes infection at the site from where the culture was taken. However, a negative culture does not mean that the patient does not have herpes or that the patient has not had a herpes infection in the past.

Growth of the virus from the collected sample indicates that the sore is infected with the herpes virus. Based on these findings, your physician will prescribe a treatment for the infection.

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