Introduction to blood tests
Blood tests can be used when a person has no visible symptoms but has concerns about having herpes. Blood tests do not actually detect the virus; instead, they look for antibodies (the body’s immune response) in the blood.
IgM vs. IgG
There are many older blood tests commercially available, but most are not accurate because they cannot accurately distinguish between antibodies for type-1 and type-2 herpes. This makes it possible to get a false positive result, especially for HSV-2.
When an individual contracts herpes, the immune system responds by developing antibodies to fight the virus: IgG and IgM. Blood tests can look for and detect these antibodies, as the virus itself is not in blood. IgG appears soon after infection and stays in the blood for life. IgM is actually the first antibody that appears after infection, but it may disappear thereafter.
IgM tests are not recommended because of three serious problems:
1. Many assume that if a test discovers IgM, they have recently acquired herpes. However, research shows that IgM can reappear in blood tests in up to a third of people during recurrences, while it will be negative in up to half of persons who recently acquired herpes but have culture-document first episodes. Therefore, IgM tests can lead to deceptive test results, as well as false assumptions about how and when a person actually acquired HSV. For this reason, we do not recommend using blood tests as a way to determine how long a person has had herpes. Unfortunately, most people who are diagnosed will not be able to determine how long they have had the infection (see reference 1).
2. In addition, IgM tests cannot accurately distinguish between HSV-1 and HSV-2 antibodies, and thus very easily provide a false positive result for HSV-2. This is important in that most of the adult population in the U.S. already has antibodies to HSV-1, the primary cause of oral herpes. A person who only has HSV-1 may receive a false positive for HSV-2.
3. IgM tests sometimes cross-react with other viruses in the same family, such as varicella zoster virus (VZV) which causes chickenpox or cytomegalovirus (CMV) which causes mono, meaning that positive results may be misleading.
The accurate herpes blood tests detect IgG antibodies. Unlike IgM, IgG antibodies can be accurately broken down to either HSV-1 or HSV-2. A recent study corroborates this finding: labs that used non-gG-based tests for herpes had high false-positive rates for HSV-2 antibodies (14-88% saying the blood sample was positive for HSV-2) in samples that were actually only positive for HSV-1 antibodies. But 100% of the labs using gG-based tests accurately reported that the blood sample was negative for HSV-2 (see reference 2).
The challenge here is that the time it takes for IgG antibodies to reach detectable levels can vary from person to person. For one person, it could take just a few weeks, while it could ta ke a few months for another. So even with the accurate tests, a person could receive a false negative if the test is taken too soon after contracting the virus. For the most accurate test result, it is recommended to wait 12 – 16 weeks from the last possible date of exposure before getting an accurate, type-specific blood test in order to allow enough time for antibodies to reach detectable levels.