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JAMA Patient Page
December 20, 2016

Screening for Genital Herpes

Author Affiliations

Copyright 2016 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved.

JAMA. 2016;316(23):2560. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.17842

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has published updated recommendations on screening for genital herpes infection in adults and adolescents.

What Is Genital Herpes?

Genital herpes is caused by herpes simplex virus, a sexually transmitted infection that can cause painful sores, ulcers, and blisters in the genital area in both men and women. Some people have these painful symptoms, and others have no symptoms at all and do not know that they are infected. Symptoms can be treated with pain medications as well as antiviral medications, but these medications do not cure the infection. The virus remains in the body for life after infection, and symptoms can come back later without any new exposure to the virus. This return of symptoms is called an outbreak and can be triggered by illness or stress. Genital herpes is most easily spread during an outbreak but can also be spread in between outbreaks.

What Tests Are Used to Screen for Genital Herpes?

Screening for genital herpes is done by a blood test that looks for antibodies against the herpes virus. These antibodies are made by the immune system in response to infection and are present if a person has been infected with genital herpes, even when there is no active outbreak.

This blood test used for screening should not be confused with tests to diagnose herpes infection during an outbreak. These diagnostic tests involve taking a swab of a lesion in the genital area to look for the presence of herpes virus.

What Is the Patient Population Under Consideration for Screening for Genital Herpes?

This USPSTF recommendation applies to all adults and adolescents, including pregnant women, who do not have symptoms of genital herpes and do not have a history of genital herpes infection.

What Are the Potential Benefits and Harms of Screening for Genital Herpes?

Potential benefits of screening for genital herpes infection are few. Unlike other infections for which screening is recommended, early detection and treatment of genital herpes does not change the long-term course of the infection. Potential harms of screening for genital herpes are related to a high chance of false-positive (incorrect) results. Up to 1 in 2 positive results may be false positive. This results in unnecessary treatment, anxiety, and disruption of relationships.

How Strong Is the Recommendation to Screen for Genital Herpes?

Given the current evidence, the USPSTF has concluded with moderate certainty that the potential harms of screening for genital herpes outweigh the potential benefits.

Bottom Line: Current Recommendation for Screening for Genital Herpes

The USPSTF does not recommend screening for genital herpes in adults and adolescents, including pregnant women (D statement).

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The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.
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Article Information

Source: US Preventive Services Task Force. Serologic screening for genital herpes infection: US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.16776

Topic: Preventive Medicine