Coronavirus Testing

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on January 03, 2023
7 min read

If you don't feel well, you may wonder if you have COVID-19. Tests can tell whether you have it now. Antibody testing can show if you had it already.

The CDC has offered the following recommendations for who should consider being tested:

  • People who have symptoms of COVID-19
  • People who've had close contact with someone who is known or suspected to have COVID (test at least 5 days after the contact)
  • All people traveling internationally must follow their destination's testing requirements before travel.

If you know or suspect you have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, you should get tested.

The CDC recommends a COVID-19 test called a nasopharyngeal swab for coronavirus. A special 6-inch cotton swab is inserted up each of your nostrils and moved around for about 15 seconds. It won’t hurt, but it might be uncomfortable. The material from inside your nose will show whether you are negative or positive.

Home self-testing is available and you can get your results in 15 minutes or less. Depending on the reason behind your testing, you may need official lab results which are done by a medical professional. The results are analyzed by a laboratory. 

COVID-19 tests include swabs of:

  • Your mouth and throat (oropharyngeal)
  • The middle of your nostrils (nasal mid-turbinate)
  • The front of your nostrils (anterior nares)

If you have a cough with mucus, called a “wet” or “productive” cough, your doctor might want to test some of what you can cough up.

Testing can take place in medical clinics, hospitals, or private laboratories. Each state has several public health labs that do testing. For information about testing in your state, online at the CDC.

 “Serology” tests look for antibodies. Your body makes them when you've had an infection. These COVID-19 tests spot two types of antibodies:

  • IgM, which your body makes for about 2 weeks before the levels drop
  • IgG, which your body makes more slowly (within about 4 weeks) but which usually last longer

A swab or spit test can tell only if you have the virus in your body at that moment. But a blood test shows whether you've ever been infected with the virus, even if you didn't have symptoms. This is important in researchers' efforts to learn how widespread COVID-19 is.

Drive-through coronavirus testing

Some hospitals and agencies continue to have centers where you can get a COVID-19 test without getting out of your car. You may need to register online or by phone, or you might need a doctor's order first. Be sure to check before you go.

The FDA has approved several at-home tests. They include rapid tests where you get your results at home within minutes as well as home collection kits which are then sent to a lab for analysis.

You'll collect your own sample through an at-home nasal swab. Then, you'll send the sample to Labcorp, where they'll do tests. Your results will be available through an online portal. A health care provider will also reach out if you have a positive or invalid test.

You can buy the at-home test online or in stores with no prescription. The collection process is slightly different based on your age:

  • Those 18 years and older can collect their own sample.
  • People 14-17 years old must have adult supervision when they're getting a sample.
  • Children 2 years and older must have an adult help them collect a sample.

The FDA has approved several other at-home tests. They include home collection kits which are then sent to a lab for analysis, as well as rapid tests where you get your results at home within minutes. 

If you have a health care plan, you can get an at-home FDA-authorized COVID-19 test from some pharmacies or stores for free. If your pharmacy or store isn't set up for the free tests, you may have to pay upfront. Make sure you keep your receipt. Your insurance will reimburse you up to $12 per test.

If you don't have insurance, you can still get a free test. The government has set up a website to send tests if you request them. You can use this website whether or not you have insurance. You can also get free at-home tests from some community health centers or health clinics. Check the CDC's website.

Some of the available rapid tests include:

  • BinaxNOW. The antigen test can be purchased online or at drugstores. You receive results within 15 minutes.
  • Ellume. This antigen costs about $30. It also uses an app to guide you through the process using a nasal swab, and results are known within 15 minutes.
  • QuickVue. Also an over-the-counter antigen test, you get two tests between $18 and $30. After you swab, you put the swab in a solution and wait 10 minutes. You then put a paper strip in the solution. It changes color to indicate positive or negative.
  • Cue. This is a molecular COVID-19 test and should be available without a prescription.
  • Lucira Health's “All-In-One.” Costing between $64-$75, it requires a prescription. You collect a sample through a nasal swab that you put in a vial of solution. You then put the vial into a portable, battery-operated device. Within 30 minutes, a light on the device indicates negative or positive. 

At-home saliva tests are available where you spit into a vial and mail it to a lab.

Free, in-person COVID-19 testing is available in most communities. Some locations require an appointment while others are drive-up. Antibody testing usually requires an appointment.

Most locations are listed online, but you can also call your doctor, your local hospital, the health department, or an urgent care center about testing locations near you. If you think it's an emergency, call 911. Whoever you call, you'll need to tell them about your symptoms over the phone or during an online visit. They may ask you some of these questions:

  • Do you have a fever or cough?
  • Do you have shortness of breath?
  • Have you been in close contact (within 6 feet) with someone who has COVID-19?
  • Has someone with COVID-19 coughed or sneezed on you?
  • Have you traveled recently?
  • Did a health official tell you that you've come in contact with COVID-19?

In April 2022, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) for a new type of COVID-19 test called the InspectIR COVID-19 Breathalyzer. It looks for signs of the virus in breath samples. A trained expert can give you this test in less than 3 minutes.

The test uses something called “gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS). With this, it can find chemical mixtures and identify compounds that are related to the virus that causes COVID-19.

In studies, experts found that the breathalyzer for COVID-19 accurately found 91.2 percent of all positive cases and correctly picked up on 99.3 percent on all negative cases.

You can't get a COVID-19 breath test at home. They're only available in doctor's offices, hospitals, and mobile testing sites.

Rapid test results take about 15 minutes. It may take a lab about 24 hours to run your test. But you might not get your results for several days based on possible backlogs in the lab. Future tests might be faster.

A positive COVID-19 test means you currently have or recently had the virus. Monitor your symptoms and get medical help right away if you have trouble breathing, confusion, or bluish lips or face.

Take steps to avoid spreading the virus:

  • Stay home, except to get medical care.
  • Stay away from other people in your home.
  • Wear a mask when you are around others in the house
  • Don't share dishes, cups, eating utensils, or linens with others.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Wash your hands often.
  • Clean and disinfect common surfaces like phones, doorknobs, or counters regularly.

If your test is positive and you have COVID-19 symptoms, you should isolate yourself until you meet all these criteria:

  • It's been at least 5 days since your symptoms began.
  • Your symptoms have improved.
  • You haven't had a fever for at least 24 hours, without using any fever-reducing medication.
  • Keep wearing a mask around others for another 5 days.

If you tested positive but didn't have symptoms, isolate yourself for 5 days. If you still have no symptoms, you can leave your house, but keep wearing your mask around others for 5 more days.

There usually is no need to be retested if you have been in isolation for 10 to 14 days if your symptoms were mild. If you had a moderate or severe case of COVID-19, you'll need to isolate for longer.

If your COVID-19 test is negative, you probably didn't have the virus at the time of the test. But you can still get sick later. Follow distancing guidelines, and wash your hands often.

There's a very small chance that your COVID-19 test results could be wrong. This is called a false positive or false negative. Your doctor or health care professional will help you decide what to do based on your symptoms and health history.

If you can't get tested, you may still need medical help. Call your doctor if you don't feel well or have a high fever or a cough. Call 911 if you have:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain or pressure in your chest
  • Confusion
  • Trouble staying alert
  • A blue tint to your lips or face