For many people, the ability to test for COVID-19 at home has been a game changer. Now, thanks to a variety of rapid antigen COVID-19 testing kits available on the market, you can test for COVID-19 in the comfort of your home and get results in as little as 15 minutes. Every household is now eligible to receive four free COVID-19 home tests from the United States government. You can order your tests at covidtests.gov.
Testing for COVID-19 at Home?
Here’s what you need to know to get the most accurate results
“Traditional PCR tests are the most reliable,” says internal medicine provider Jodi Lenko, MD, with LVPG Family and Internal Medicine–Alliance Drive, and Vice Chair, Department of Medicine, Lehigh Valley Hospital–Hazleton. “However, not everyone needs a PCR test. At-home tests, or antigen tests, are very useful in certain situations.”
Before you test
It’s a good idea to keep a small supply of rapid antigen COVID-19 tests in your home, so you have one readily available if someone in your family needs to be tested. There are a variety of COVID-19 testing kits, so choosing one can be daunting. Studies have shown that kits with nasal swabs are more effective than those that have saliva samples. You also should make sure that the COVID-19 testing kit you are purchasing is labeled as FDA approved. You can find the complete list of authorized brands on the FDA’s website.
Before using your at-home testing kit, make sure it’s the best testing option for your situation. In some cases, a PCR test may be required. If you are traveling or need to have COVID-19 clearance for an activity or employer, check to see whether they will accept results from a home test.
Home COVID-19 tests usually come in a pack of two so if you suspect you have been exposed, you can take a second test a few days after the first. Make sure to store your at-home testing kits in a dry, room temperature setting. Do not open kits prior to use.
Each type of home COVID-19 test is slightly different. Be sure to read the directions carefully before you start. The directions will provide details on how to use the swab correctly and how long you should wait for results. Record your results in 15 to 30 minutes and dispose of your test. Don’t look at the test after 30 minutes as the results are no longer accurate.
Positive or negative: can I trust the results?
Home tests look for the presence of specific proteins associated with the virus. If they are detected, a positive result appears on a test strip in a matter of minutes, similar to a home pregnancy test.
If your COVID-19 test is POSITIVE, Lenko says trust the results. “If you have cold or flu-like symptoms, and you test at home and it is positive, you have COVID-19. Stay home, isolate and stay away from other people,” she says. “And to help preserve tests, unless you are in a situation that requires a PCR (lab) test as proof, you don’t need a PCR test to confirm the antigen test results.”
If your result is NEGATIVE, stay home if you have symptoms and test again in a couple of days. “Home tests can return a false negative early in an infection, so you should test again in 36 to 48 hours,” Lenko says. “If the results are negative again, use one of LVHN’s virtual care options to get guidance on what to do next,” Lenko says.
Preventive measures are still key
Although home testing is important when it comes to detecting and stopping the spread of COVID-19, Lenko says it is not a substitute for other preventive measures. “Home testing is certainly advantageous when it comes to keeping people safe, especially those who are high risk,” Lenko says, “but it’s not a substitute for vaccines, masks and social distancing while the virus is circulating at such high levels.”