Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.
There are a few different types of COVID tests, and you may not always have a choice about which one you get. Some tests (like antigen tests and PCR) are diagnostic tests—they will tell you if you have coronavirus in your body right now. Antibody tests, however, aren’t a good choice for diagnosing COVID. They look for your immune system’s response to the virus, so they’re used to determine if you had COVID in the past (FDA, n.d.).
If you need same-day COVID test results, your best bet may be a rapid antigen test. These tests look for the outer shell of the virus. Because they don’t require any special machinery to be processed, results can be available in minutes (Sakamoto, 2018).
The test typically uses a simple test strip designed by scientists to change color when the virus’s outer shell is present in your sample. And while you may have heard that these tests aren’t as good at finding the virus as other types, researchers have found that it may not be a bad thing. Here’s why.
When a person is infected with the coronavirus, they’re most likely to infect other people in the three days before their own symptoms appear (when they themselves don’t know they’re sick). With each day that passes, they become less likely to infect others. Even once you’re no longer capable of spreading the coronavirus, tests like PCR will still be positive. Rapid antigen testing is good at detecting the virus during a person’s most infectious days, and that’s really what matters when it comes to preventing the spread (CDC, 2020).
- If you need same-day COVID test results, it’s a good idea to look for something called a rapid antigen test. Results take about 15 minutes, and these tests are available at certain clinics, pharmacies and can even be done in the comfort of your own home.
- Both antigen tests and PCR tests can be done quickly, but PCR tests have to be processed in a lab, meaning that they can sometimes take a little longer than antigen tests, which can be processed on the spot.
- If you’re experiencing symptoms of COVID, consult with a healthcare provider before getting a test. They may recommend that you isolate yourself at home rather than leave the house to get tested and risk exposing others.
- To find a COVID test near you, you can reach out to your healthcare provider, a local urgent care clinic, or the health department in your state.
How long do the results of each test take?
Both PCR tests (which look for the virus’s genetic material) and antigen tests (which look for the virus’s outer shell) are pretty quick. But since PCR tests need to be evaluated using a special machine, they can take longer to process.
PCR machines are typically available in hospitals, but aren’t usually found in urgent care clinics, pharmacies, or a healthcare provider’s office. While some places can get results quickly, in other cases, people have reported that it can take nine days or longer to get results (NPR, 2020).
Rapid antigen tests are a lot like pregnancy tests (where you pee on a stick to see if you’re pregnant). With rapid antigen tests, your sample will typically be collected with a nasal swab. The swab will then be put in a small plastic tube that contains a special liquid, and the test strip will then be dipped in the tube. The whole process takes somewhere between five and 30 minutes to get results (Gugliemli, 2020).
More recently, at-home tests have become available. But not all tests are created equal. Some tests can be done entirely at home (like the Ellume antigen test), while others include at-home sample collection, but must be sent out to a laboratory for analysis (like the Pixel test). Some of the tests require prescriptions, and while others aren’t yet available to the general public, more should be available soon (FDA, 2020).
When do you need same-day results?
Getting your results quickly is always a priority. While waiting for results, a person might continue to infect others. By the time a positive result arrives, it can be hard to remember all of the people you may have interacted with to alert them that they need to get tested. In extreme cases when people have waited longer than a week to get their results, they’ve been of little or no use at all.
If you’ve been asked to get a COVID test (like if you’re traveling somewhere and the airline requires it), you can search for a testing site that might be able to provide you with that service. Keep in mind though, a negative test isn’t a reason to visit with others. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time that tells you that at the moment you got tested, you likely didn’t have COVID. But all exposure to others—even to fill your car with gas or grab snacks at a store—is a potential exposure to the coronavirus.
Your best bet is to stay home whenever possible, wear a mask when you need to go out, and make sure to continue to socially distance when you’re in the presence of people who are not part of your immediate household (CDC, 2020).
What you should do while you wait for the results
If you’ve had a known exposure to a person who tested positive for the coronavirus, or if you’re feeling sick, you need to isolate. This means staying home and staying away from other people in your own household, if possible, especially if you’re feeling sick (CDC, 2020).
If you have symptoms of COVID, consult with your healthcare provider before getting a test. People with mild symptoms may be asked to stay at home and isolate rather than risking exposing others by leaving the house for a test.
No matter what, it’s important to continue to stay home whenever possible and wear a mask when you’re outside of your home. Maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people and be conscious of your surroundings (CDC, 2020).
What should I do if my test is positive?
If you test positive for the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should isolate at home, including from the people in your own household, if possible. It’s okay to stop isolating once (CDC, 2020):
- At least 10 days have passed since your positive test if you did not have any symptoms.
- At least 10 days have passed since your symptoms first appeared.
- You have been fever-free for at least 24 hours without using fever-reducing medication, and any other COVID symptoms you have are improving.
It’s important to know that loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months after recovery, and are not a sign of being infectious.