Do Doctors Misdiagnose Herpes?

Q: Do doctors misdiagnose herpes?

shutterstock-misdiagnosisA: Yes. It wasn’t until the 1940s that herpes was found to be an actual virus. Then, 1960’s research started to isolate the virus into two types that we know today: HSV-1 and HSV-2. Although it is said that the virus was misdiagnosed all the way through the 1970s, the truth is, it’s still being misdiagnosed.

It used to be that doctors would diagnose herpes based on classic presentations of painful, itching blisters. This “classic presentation” is now debunked due to the alarming number of people who never elicit such classic symptoms.

Type-specific blood testing, which enables us to differentiate between HSV-1 and HSV-2, was not available until more recent years. The older tests could only reveal a positive or negative result for the herpes virus.

This was extremely limiting in regards to helping patients determine their level of risk and how they might have acquired the infection. Doctors still misdiagnose herpes all the time.

Herpes has been called the great masquerader because it can look like so many different things. We need to get doctors on board with proper diagnosis of herpes so that we as patients can be empowered, educated individuals.


  1. Leslie says:

    I was interested to read some of the history on herpes research and diagnosis. I can attest to the fact that misdiagnosis was commomplace through the seventies. In1974, after being infected with the virus, I remained undiagnosed for almost 5 years. I sought help from 2 gynecologists but they didn’t have any idea. I went to a traditional Chinese medicine store but no help there. Several years later while working as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Tunisian doctor correctly identifed my symptoms as the herpes virus.

    • Dr. Kelly says:

      Hello Leslie,
      You are correct, that many doctors did not have much experience in diagnosing herpes in the 70’s. Surprisingly enough, herpes is still misdiagnosed all of the time. There are several factors for this. First and foremost, herpes is the great masquerader. It mimics several other benign infections, amongst other things. In women, it is commonly misdiagnosed as a yeast infection, eczema, a staph infection (also known as impetigo), or an allergic rash. Many women think that it might be caused from vigorous sex or an ingrown hair. The truth is that both doctors and patients misdiagnose herpes because it does have similar symptoms to all of these things. I constantly hear women who have been misdiagnosed for years until someone finally figures it out. This brings up so many questions for these women like “who gave it to me”, “did I transmit it to my previous partners”, “do I need to contact my past partners, and “why didn’t my other doctors tell me”? These are all valid questions, some of which come down to ethics and others come down to some sleuthing. If you want to read a great little piece on herpes, read Time magazine’s, The Scarlet H article from 1982. This piece offers up some history back to Shakespeare’s time. I also recommend “The Good News about The Bad News” by Terri Ward. And of course, I review diagnosis in some great depth in my new book, Live, Love and Thrive with Herpes: A Holistic Guide For Women, available soon. So, my question to you is do you think that the stigma of herpes had anything to do with your misdiagnosis? Were your doctors trying to protect you from the emotions associated with such a stigmatizing diagnosis or do you truly think they didn’t know any better?

  2. zandy says:

    Dr. Kelly, I’m awaiting results for my tests and I’m in excruciating pain with all the sores in my vaginal area. The hospital cannot do a thing till my lab results return. I’m really depressed as of now, but seeing this sight and your compassion for us woman has given me hope.. right now I am in my own personal hell and these sores hurt like I’m being stabbed, but when my results return and it’s confirmed I have herpes, I thank God pinktent will be here for me and Dr. Kelly..

  3. Hue Lazier says:

    Bullous impetigo, mainly seen in children younger than 2 years, involves painless, fluid-filled blisters, mostly on the arms, legs and trunk, surrounded by red and itchy (but not sore) skin. The blisters may be large or small. After they break, they form yellow scabs.:`..;

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