Coronavirus Testing

If you don’t feel well, you may wonder if you have COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by a new kind of coronavirus. Tests can tell whether you have it.

There isn’t a treatment for COVID-19. So if your symptoms are mild, your doctor will probably tell you to recover at home and stay away from others.

Who Should Get Tested?

Talk to your doctor about whether you need to get tested. If you don’t have a doctor, call your local hospital or health department.

The CDC recommends a priority system for who should get tested. At the top of the list are people who have COVID-19 symptoms and who meet at least one of these criteria:

  • Are admitted to the hospital
  • Work in a health care facility
  • Are first responders
  • Work or live in places where many people live, such as long-term care facilities or prisons

The next priority level is:

  • Other people who have symptoms of COVID-19
  • Those who don’t have symptoms but who are deemed a priority by local health departments or doctors

 

How to Get Tested

Call your doctor, your local hospital, the health department, or an urgent care center. 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 into contact with COVID-19?

Where to Get Tested

Your doctor or another health care professional will tell you where to go for the test. They’ll also give you some special instructions. Those might include wearing a mask or going to a certain part of the hospital or clinic.

Types of Coronavirus Testing

The CDC recommends a COVID-19 test called a nasopharyngeal swab. The technician will put a special 6-inch cotton swab up both sides of your nose and move it around for about 15 seconds. It won’t hurt, but it might be uncomfortable. They’ll send the swab to a lab to test the material from inside your nose.

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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.

Each state has one or more public health labs that does testing. That number is growing. For information about testing in your state, check online at the CDC.

The FDA has issued an emergency use ruling for LabCorp’s Pixel home COVID-19 test. That means you can use it even though it doesn’t have full FDA approval yet. This test has a special cotton swab that you run inside your nose, like a technician would, and mail to a lab for testing.

The agency 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.

The agency has taken similar steps with blood or “serology” tests that can 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.

The FDA gave an emergency use authorization so doctors can use the blood test even though it doesn’t have full FDA approval yet.

Each state has one or more public health labs that does testing. That number is growing. For information about testing in your state, check online at the CDC.

The FDA has issued an emergency use ruling for LabCorp’s Pixel home COVID-19 test. It has a special cotton swab that you run inside your nose and mail to a lab for testing. The agency is also allowing use of a home saliva test from the Rutgers Clinical Genomics Laboratory.

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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.

A technician in protective gear will ask about your symptoms and take your temperature. They’ll swab your nose or mouth and send it to a lab for testing.

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. Future tests might be faster.

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.
  • 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 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 if you have a high fever or a serious breathing problem. Call your doctor or 911 to find out what to do.

Other signs that you need help right away include:

  • Pain or pressure in your chest
  • Confusion
  • Trouble staying alert
  • A blue tint to your lips or face
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 29, 2020

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.”

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.”

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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