Coronavirus Testing

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 have had it already.

Who Should Get Tested?

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)
  • People who aren't fully vaccinated and must travel domestically. Get a viral test 1-3 days before your trip, and 3-5 days after you return, too. The CDC recommends you delay travel until you're fully vaccinated.
  • All people traveling internationally must follow their destination's testing requirements before travel. If you're not fully vaccinated and must travel abroad, get a viral test 1-3 days before your trip. The CDC recommends you delay travel until you're fully vaccinated. Everyone 2 years and older returning to the U.S. must show a negative COVID test result taken no more than 1 day before travel. There is also an option for people who have documents to show they've recovered from COVID in the last 90 days.
  • Those who don't have symptoms but who are deemed a priority by local health departments or doctors.

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

Types of Coronavirus Testing

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 swab is then sent to a lab to test the material from inside your nose.

Other 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.

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COVID testing is available to everyone in the U.S. for free, even if you don't have insurance. Check 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 have set up 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.

Testing for COVID-19, Flu, and RSV

The FDA has authorized the first nonprescription test for COVID-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The test, called the Labcorp Seasonal Respiratory Virus RT-PCR DTC Test, can detect various respiratory viruses all at once.

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.

How to Get Tested

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. 

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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 up front. 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 for about $25. 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 less than $50, 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. 

The FDA is also allowing use of a home saliva test from the Rutgers Clinical Genomics Laboratory. You need a doctor's prescription to get it. 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?

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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.

Where to Get Tested

As of May 16, 2022, all households in the U.S. are eligible to get a third round of eight at-home COVID tests, delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. They can be ordered at www.covid.gov/tests.

You can also check with your doctor or another health care professional, but many pharmacies and health departments advertise available testing locations.  If you are being tested at a facility for the virus or for antibodies, you will have to wear a mask and may have to wait outside until time to be tested.

Home testing kits also are available at some drug stores as well as through online purchase.

How Long Do Test Results Take?

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.

Rapid test results take about 15 minutes but are not as accurate.

What Happens After I Get Tested?

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.

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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 quarantine 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 quarantine 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.

When Is It an Emergency?

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
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 17, 2022

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Testing," "Testing in U.S.," "Evaluating and Testing PUI," "Older Adults," "Guidelines for Clinical Specimens," “Evaluating and Testing Persons for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” “Interim Guidelines for Collecting, Handling, and Testing Clinical Specimens from Persons for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” “Fact Sheet for Patients: 2019-nCoV Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel,” “When You Can be Around Others After You Had or Likely Had COVID-19,” “U.S Citizens, U.S. Nationals, U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents, and Immigrants: Travel to and from the United States,” “Domestic Travel During COVID-19,” “Small and Large Gatherings,” “CDC Updates and Shortens Recommended Isolation and Quarantine Period for General Population,” “Ending Isolation and Precautions for People with COVID-19: Interim Guidance.”

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services: "Testing and Treatment for COVID-19."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Coronavirus (COVID-19)," "Coronavirus (COVID-19): What Do I Do If I Feel Sick?"

Cleveland Clinic: "Frequently Asked Questions about Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)."

Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment: "COVID-19 Testing."

National Institutes of Health: "Coronavirus (COVID-19)."

California Department of Public Health: "COVID-19."

UCDavis Health: “Coronavirus (COVID-19) testing: What you should know.”

FDA letter.

News releases, FDA.

FDA: “FAQs for Diagnostic Testing for SARS-CoV-2,” “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First COVID-19 Diagnostic Test Using Breath Samples,” “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First COVID-19 Test Available without a Prescription That Also Detects Flu and RSV.”

FCC: “COVID-19 Consumer Warnings and Safety Tips.”

University Hospitals: “Testing for Coronavirus (COVID-19).”

Stanford Medicine: “Tests for antibodies against novel coronavirus developed at Stanford Medicine.”

Abnova: “COVID-19 Human IgM/IgG Rapid Test.”

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Health Security: “Serology-based tests for COVID-19.”

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COVIDtests.gov: “Get free at-home COVID-19 tests.”

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services: How to get your At-Home Over-the-Counter COVID-19 Tests for Free.”

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