HSV, also known as the herpes simplex virus, is the series of viruses that cause oral and genital herpes. HSV-1 primarily causes oral herpes, while HSV-2 most often causes genital herpes. Both viruses can lead to an outbreak of sores called herpes lesions, as well as other symptoms.

If you’ve been exposed to the herpes virus, it can take anywhere from 2 to 12 days for symptoms to appear and for the virus to be detected on a test.

In this article, we’ll explore all you need to know about when to get tested for herpes, and how you can prevent the spread of herpes to your sexual partners.

Before your body can begin to fight an infection, it must produce proteins called antibodies. These proteins are designed to neutralize the incoming bacteria, virus, or foreign pathogen.

The time it takes for your body to produce antibodies after exposure to HSV is known as the incubation period. The incubation period for both oral and genital herpes is 2 to 12 days.

Early testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is important, but it’s just as important to not test too early. During the herpes incubation period, you may still test negative for the virus, as your body is building an immune response to the infection.

If your immune system has not yet produced the antibodies, they won’t show up on an antibody test. This can lead you to believe that you don’t have the virus, even though you do.

The incubation period for herpes is 2 to 12 days, which means that the best time to get tested for the herpes virus — if you haven’t had an initial outbreak — is after 12 days. If you’re worried that you’ve been exposed to herpes but have not yet been diagnosed, here are some steps you can take:

  • If you’re currently sexually active, stop all sexual activity until you can receive a formal diagnosis.
  • Reach out to your doctor and schedule an appointment for once the incubation period is up.
  • If you’re having an outbreak, you don’t have to wait to get tested. It’s possible to receive a diagnosis based on the lesions.

There are four main types of diagnostic tests that can be used to diagnose herpes. Your doctor will determine which type of test to use based on whether an outbreak is present or not.

If you’re experiencing what you believe to be a herpes outbreak, your doctor can use a viral culture test or virus antigen detection test. If you’re not experiencing symptoms, you can have an antibody test.

  • Viral culture test. This test is used to determine if a sore contains the herpes virus. This test can sometimes produce a false-negative, meaning that it may not detect the virus even though it’s present.
  • Virus antigen detection test. This test is used to determine if antigens to the herpes virus are present in a sore or lesion.
  • Antibody test. If you’re not experiencing an outbreak yet but still believe you may have been exposed, you can opt to have an antibody test performed. This test will only show a positive result if the antibodies to the virus have been developed. Therefore, this test isn’t necessarily recommended for recent exposure.
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. With this test, a healthcare provider can screen a sample of your blood or tissue from a sore. They can use this to determine if HSV is present and which type you have.

It generally takes anywhere from 4 to 7 days for herpes symptoms to appear. Both genital and oral herpes outbreaks have similar symptoms.

The primary symptom of a herpes outbreak is sores that resemble blisters, called herpes lesions, on the mouth or genitals.

In addition, people may also experience the following symptoms prior to the outbreak:

  • pain and redness, especially around the area the outbreak will occur
  • itching and tingling, primarily in the outbreak area
  • flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, fever, or swollen lymph nodes

Most of the symptoms that occur before an outbreak indicate that the virus is replicating. Symptoms are usually the worst during the first herpes outbreak.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), subsequent herpes outbreaks are usually not as severe, and many people become familiar with the signs and symptoms of an approaching outbreak.

Some people with the herpes virus are asymptomatic, which means that they don’t experience any physical symptoms of the disease. This doesn’t mean that they can’t spread the disease, however.

Anyone who has the herpes virus, whether symptomatic or not, can spread the virus to others.

If you have the herpes virus and your body has produced antibodies, it can be detected on a blood test, even if you have no symptoms. The only time the virus might not be detected on a test (after you’ve contracted it) is if you’ve been tested too early.

Can you have a false-negative test result?

The only time the virus might not be detected on a test (after you’ve contracted it) is if you’ve been tested too early.

Although herpes is a lifelong virus that can’t be cured, it goes through periods of dormancy between outbreaks. This means that while the virus is still present, it’s not actively replicating.

During this time, you may not experience any signs or symptoms of having the disease — even if you’ve had a previous outbreak before.

However, you can still spread the herpes virus to your sexual partners at any time, even if no sores are present. In addition, although rare, it’s possible to spread oral herpes to the genital region and vice versa.

For this reason, it’s extremely important to be mindful of the following preventive measures:

  • Tell your partners that you have genital or oral herpes. This allows them to make informed decisions about their own sexual health, and it’s the responsible thing to do.
  • If you’re experiencing the signs and symptoms of an upcoming outbreak, avoid all sexual contact. You’re most likely to spread the virus to others during an outbreak.
  • It’s possible to spread the herpes virus even without an outbreak. If you’re worried about spreading the disease to a partner, research shows that antivirals are effective at reducing this possibility.

Having oral or genital herpes doesn’t mean that you can no longer have sex. However, it’s your responsibility to prevent the spread of herpes to your sexual partner.

If you have herpes, you can still take care of your sexual health through open communication and safer sex.

If you’ve been exposed to the herpes virus, you should wait for the incubation period to pass before you get tested.

During this time period, it’s important to avoid sexual activity until you’ve received a formal diagnosis. There are multiple testing options, but your doctor will choose the best test for you based on whether you’re having an outbreak or not.

While there’s no treatment for the herpes virus, practicing open communication and safer sex with your partners is the best way to prevent the spread of herpes.