Genital herpes simplex virus (HSV) is of major public health importance, as indicated by the marked increase in the prevalence of genital herpes over the past two decades. Viral culture has traditionally been regarded as the gold standard for diagnosis. In this study, we compared viral culture and the amplification of HSV DNA by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) with respect to sensitivity, cost, clinical utility, and turnaround time. Patient sample swabs from 100 individuals were inoculated onto MRC-5 cells for isolation. Positive results were confirmed via a direct fluorescent antibody technique, and serotyping, when requested, was performed using HSV-1 and -2-type-specific sera. PCR techniques employed an extraction step of the same initial swab specimen, followed by PCR amplification, using a multiplex assay for HSV-1, 2 DNA. HSV-positive results were found in 32/100 samples via culture and in 36/100 samples via PCR. PCR-positive results yielded 16 (44%) patients infected with HSV-1 and 20 (56%) patients infected with HSV-2. Turnaround time for viral culture averaged 108 hours for positive results and 154 hours for negative results; PCR turnaround time averaged 24--48 hours. Laboratory cost using viral culture was $3.22 for a negative result and $6.49 for a positive result (including direct fluorescent antibody). Serotyping added $10.88 to each culture-positive test. Although laboratory costs for PCR were higher at $8.20/sample, reimbursement levels were also higher. We propose a multiplex PCR assay for diagnosis of HSV-1 and HSV-2 from patient swabs for use in a routine clinical laboratory setting. This assay offers increased sensitivity, typing, and improved turnaround time when compared with traditional viral culture techniques. Although it appears that PCR testing in a routine clinical laboratory setting is cost prohibitive compared with the case of nonserotyped viral culture, it may be very useful when clinical utility warrants distinguishing between HSV 1 and 2 and may be cost effective when reimbursement issues are examined.