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Last updated February 1, 2021. 5 minute read

Does the COVID-19 nasal swab test hurt?

If you need to get tested for COVID, don’t worry. The PCR test can be uncomfortable, but it’s generally not painful. Plus, the whole test only takes a few seconds. Here’s an overview of what you can expect from the PCR test, and how it compares to the rapid antigen test.

Written by Rachel Honeyman
Reviewed by Dr. Chimene Richa, MD

You may have heard that the COVID nasal swab test is painful. You might have even avoided getting tested for that reason. But rest assured, while it can be a little uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be painful. And on the plus side, it only takes a few seconds to complete.

Let’s take a closer look at why the PCR nasal swab can cause discomfort, and check out some of the other COVID testing options available. 

Vitals

  • The COVID PCR test is typically done with a swab that goes deep into your nostril, which can be uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be painful. The plus side is, the test only takes a few seconds. 
  • Many people find the rapid antigen test more comfortable since the swab doesn’t go as far up the nostril.
  • The PCR test is better at detecting COVID than the rapid antigen test, but results can take longer and the test is often more expensive.
  • Getting tested if you have symptoms or if you’ve been exposed to COVID is critical to keeping the virus contained. If you get a positive test result, it’s important to inform any close contacts to prevent further spread.

Why is the PCR test uncomfortable for some people?

Before we delve in, what exactly is a PCR test? These diagnostic tests work by looking for genetic material from the virus. This is different from a rapid antigen test, which looks for viral proteins instead of genetic material.

The PCR test is considered the most reliable COVID test available. It’s commonly done with what’s called a nasopharyngeal swab, which goes deep into the nose so it can capture the most secretions possible. The test is also sometimes done with an oropharyngeal swab that goes into the back of the throat. While saliva tests (which require you to spit into a container) are another option, they’re not widely available (Czumbel, 2020). And research seems to show that the nasal swab is the most accurate (Wang, 2020).

Needless to say, sticking something far up your nasal passage doesn’t sound like a very pleasant experience. But as we mentioned, it shouldn’t cause pain. And the test takes just a few seconds per nostril, so it’ll be over before you know it. 

Another option, however, is the rapid antigen test. While it can be done with a shallower nasal swab said to be less unpleasant than the PCR test deep dive, and results are typically faster, this test is less accurate than PCR tests, meaning it may miss some cases of COVID (FDA, 2020). 

Are there any complications from the PCR test? 

Even though the nasopharyngeal swab goes deep into the nostril, the PCR test is very safe. Hundreds of millions of tests have been administered to date, and studies have shown that complications are almost non-existent (Föh, 2020). 

What’s the difference between PCR and rapid antigen tests?

When a test can detect a virus at such low levels, it’s considered to be highly sensitive, meaning that it’s good at identifying if a person has COVID. The PCR test is both highly sensitive and highly specific, meaning it’s also good at identifying when a person does not have the virus. When a test is both sensitive and specific, it’s considered to be very accurate. 

Although it’s usually accurate when it comes to identifying people who don’t have COVID, the rapid antigen test is not as accurate as the PCR test at identifying people who do. That means false negatives are more likely to occur. In other words, if you get a negative result from a rapid antigen test, but you have symptoms of COVID or have been exposed to someone with the virus, you can’t rely on that negative test result. If you suspect you may have COVID, you might need to confirm your results with a PCR test (Krüttgen, 2020).

How long do tests results take?

Of course, one major difference between antigen and PCR tests is how quickly the results come back. With antigen tests, you’ll generally get results within 20 minutes. In some cases, you can even get an at-home rapid antigen test and the process is as short as 15 minutes start to finish with results available right from your smartphone. 

The PCR test needs to be processed by a lab using special machinery, so how quickly you get results really depends on where you get the test, which lab they use, and the logistics of the process. 

What is an antibody test and does it hurt? 

Unlike the PCR and rapid antigen tests, a COVID antibody test is not diagnostic. This means it cannot tell if you currently have the virus. What it does tell you, is if you’ve ever had COVID-19 in the past (Zolton, 2020). 

Antibody tests are done on a blood sample, not a nasal or nasopharyngeal swab, and it can be done with either a finger prick or a blood sample from a vein. 

Don’t be afraid to get a coronavirus test

There’s so much about the pandemic that can be scary, but getting tested shouldn’t be one of them. Whether you’re getting a PCR test or a rapid antigen test, you can expect a few seconds of discomfort that will go away right when you’re done. 

Even though COVID vaccines are rolling out around the world, it’s still important to wear a mask and practice social distancing. And don’t forget about the other crucial element when it comes to keeping the virus contained: if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or if you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive, it’s important to get tested.