COVID-19 testing is more important now than ever before. With the highly contagious BA.5 variant causing a surge in cases across the country, knowing who has COVID-19 and encouraging them to take precautions can help stop further spread of the disease.
However, while testing has proven to be crucial, many people don’t know when exactly they should test, which test they should use, and what they should do with the results they receive.
Here are the top 5 things you need to know about COVID-19 testing:
1. There are two types of diagnostic tests available.
These tests can determine if you are currently infected with the virus that causes COVID-19:
- Molecular tests, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests
- Antigen tests, often referred to as rapid tests
If you think you need a COVID-19 test, you can go to a community testing site. If you think you need a COVID-19 test, you can go to a community testing site where a health care provider can perform a PCR test via nose swab and send your sample to a lab. You can also use an at-home rapid COVID-19 test, which gives you the option of self-testing when and where it is convenient for you.
Rapid test results can be determined in minutes, but the tests may be less reliable for people without symptoms and might require a follow-up PCR test. PCR tests are generally more accurate than at-home tests but can take days to complete.
2. There’s more than one reason to be tested.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you get tested:
- If you have COVID-19 symptoms
- At least 5 days after a known or suspected exposure to COVID-19
- For screening to go to school, work, camp or large events
- Before and after travel
- When asked by a health care professional or public health official
If you have COVID-19 symptoms or if you are not up to date on your vaccines and boosters and have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, isolate until you receive your test results. You may also want to test before attending gatherings or spending time with someone who is at high risk of severe illness. Knowing if you are infected can ensure you stay home, follow other spread-prevention guidelines and keep those around you healthy.
3. There are clear actions you should take after testing.
The CDC offers guidelines about what you should do if you receive a positive or negative test result.
If positive, regardless of your vaccination status:
- Isolate for at least 5 days, ending isolation only if you are fever-free for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication) and your symptoms are improving.
- Notify any people you have spent time with in the 2 days prior to the start of your symptoms or positive test.
- Wear a well-fitting mask if you must be around others in your home during your isolation.
- Monitor your symptoms and contact your doctor to discuss treatment options. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you experience severe symptoms.
- Continue to wear a well-fitting mask when around others in your home and in public upon completion of your isolation, and avoid being around people who are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19 for a total of 10 days after your symptoms started or your positive test was taken.
- Do not travel for 10 days after your symptoms started or your positive test was taken.
- If you are up to date on your vaccines and boosters and have no symptoms or have not been exposed to someone with COVID-19, return to your normal activities.
- If you are up to date on your vaccines and boosters and have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, return to your normal activities, but wear a well-fitting mask for 10 days when around others in your home and in public. Avoid being around people who are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19.
- If you are up to date on your vaccines and boosters and are experiencing symptoms, consider taking a follow-up PCR test to confirm the negative result. You should also stay home while sick and consider testing again on the fifth day as an extra precaution.
- If you are not up to date on your vaccines and have symptoms or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, quarantine for at least 5 days. Consider testing again on the fifth day as an extra precaution.
- If you are not up to date on your vaccines and have no symptoms or exposure, return to your normal activities. You should also take steps to get up to date on vaccines to protect yourself and others.
4. The timing of testing is important.
A recent study found antigen tests catch only 20% of infections on the first day of symptoms, whereas PCR tests catch 80% of infections. Antigen tests perform best 4 days after experiencing COVID symptoms, catching 77% of infections.
Additionally, a negative test result does not rule out an infection. Consider following an antigen test with a PCR test. Test again 5 days later with either an antigen or PCR test to confirm a negative result, especially after an exposure or if you are having COVID symptoms.
5. At-home antigen tests can expire.
Expiration dates are included on the box labels of at-home, over-the-counter (OTC) COVID-19 tests. The date noted is the date through which the test is expected to perform accurately. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recommend using expired at-home COVID-19 diagnostic tests. However, you can check the “Expiration Date” column of the FDA’s List of Authorized At-Home OTC COVID-19 Diagnostic Tests to see if the expiration date for your test has been extended.
It is also important to note that exposure to extreme temperatures can impact a test’s performance. With the current heat wave in mind, the FDA recommends using a different test if your test has been left in direct sunlight or exposed to high temperatures for several days.
To get tested for COVID-19, visit a community testing site or local pharmacy. Free at-home antigen tests are available from the federal government for every home in the United States. You can also purchase at-home rapid tests online or in pharmacies and retail stores.
If you have health insurance, your insurance provider will pay you back for eight at-home tests each month — at a rate of up to $12 per individual test — for each person on your plan. Some health plans identify pharmacies and retailers where people with coverage can pick up at-home COVID-19 tests for free, rather than going through the process of having to submit claims for reimbursement. Contact your health plan for more information.