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Last updated September 9, 2021. 5 minute read

Does the COVID-19 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 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 often done with a swab that goes deep into your nostril. It can be uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be painful—and it 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. 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 discuss how it feels, what exactly is a PCR test? A PCR is a diagnostic test that works by looking for a virus’s genetic material. This is different from a rapid antigen test, which looks for proteins from the virus’s outer shell.

The PCR test is considered the most reliable COVID test available. It’s usually done by what’s called a nasopharyngeal swab, which goes deep into the nose to capture the most secretions possible. The test is sometimes done with an oropharyngeal swab that goes into the back of the throat from the mouth. While saliva tests (which require you to spit into a container) are another option, they’re not as widely available (Czumbel, 2020). 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 pleasant experience. But as we mentioned, it should not cause pain. And the test takes just a few seconds per nostril, so it’s over before you know it. 

The rapid antigen test can be done with a shallower nasal swab. It’s said to be more comfortable than the PCR test, and results are typically faster. However, 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?

The PCR test can detect a virus at very low levels, so it’s considered to be highly sensitive. A highly sensitive test is good at identifying a person who has COVID. The PCR test is also 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. 

The rapid antigen test is not as good at identifying people who have COVID as the PCR test. That means there’s a higher likelihood of getting a false negative result. 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 test results take?

One major difference between antigen and PCR tests is how quickly the results come back. With antigen tests, you’ll usually get results within 30 minutes. In some cases, you can even get an at-home rapid antigen test. Some at-home tests can take as little as 15 minutes from start to finish with results available right from your smartphone. 

The PCR test needs to be processed by a lab using special machinery. 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 used to diagnose infection. 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 or if you’ve been vaccinated against the virus (Zolton, 2020). 

Antibody tests are done by a blood sample, not a nasal or nasopharyngeal swab. It can be done with either a finger prick or a blood draw from a vein. 

Don’t be afraid to get a coronavirus test

There’s so much about COVID-19 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 available, it’s still important to wear a mask and practice social distancing if you haven’t been fully vaccinated or if you’re around other people who haven’t been vaccinated. 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.

References

  1. Czumbel, L. M., Kiss, S., Farkas, N., Mandel, I., Hegyi, A., Nagy, Á., Lohinai, Z., Szakács, Z., Hegyi, P., Steward, M. C., & Varga, G. (2020). Saliva as a Candidate for COVID-19 Diagnostic Testing: A Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in medicine, 7, 465. Doi: 10.3389/fmed.2020.00465. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7438940/
  2. Föh, B., Borsche, M., Balck, A., Taube, S., Rupp, J., Klein, C., & Katalinic, A. (2020). Complications of nasal and pharyngeal swabs – a relevant challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic?. The European respiratory journal, 2004004. Advance online publication. Doi: 10.1183/13993003.04004-2020. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7736753/
  3. Krüttgen, A., Cornelissen, C. G., Dreher, M., Hornef, M. W., Imöhl, M., & Kleines, M. (2021). Comparison of the SARS-CoV-2 Rapid antigen test to the real star Sars-CoV-2 RT PCR kit. Journal of virological methods, 288, 114024. Doi: 10.1016/j.jviromet.2020.114024. Retrieved at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7678421/
  4. Sullivan, C. B., Schwalje, A. T., Jensen, M., Li, L., Dlouhy, B. J., Greenlee, J. D., & Walsh, J. E. (2020). Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak After Nasal Swab Testing for Coronavirus Disease 2019. JAMA otolaryngology– head & neck surgery, 146(12), 1179–1181. Doi: 10.1001/jamaoto.2020.3579. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33022069/
  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2020). A closer look at COVID-19 diagnostic testing. Retrieved at https://www.fda.gov/health-professionals/closer-look-covid-19-diagnostic-testing on January 10, 2021
  6. Wang, X., Tan, L., Wang, X., Liu, W., Lu, Y., Cheng, L., & Sun, Z. (2020). Comparison of nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs for SARS-CoV-2 detection in 353 patients received tests with both specimens simultaneously. International journal of infectious diseases : IJID : official publication of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, 94, 107–109. Doi: 10.1016/j.ijid.2020.04.023. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7166099/
  7. Zolton J. R. (2020). COVID-19 antibody testing: future directions. Global Reproductive Health, 5. Doi: 10.1097/GRH.0000000000000045. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7480799/