Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Testing

By Neil Brown, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 22, 2020

Early, accurate testing is an important way for patients, doctors, and public health officials to combat the spread of a communicable illness. Tests help patients determine whether they’ve been exposed to a disease and help doctors treat infected patients appropriately. Researchers use test results to identify others that may have been exposed to the disease and use statistics to recommend preventative health measures to people in the community.

For new diseases that spread very quickly, like the coronavirus (COVID-19), tests are an especially important way to keep infection rates low. If you are worried about COVID-19 cases near you and believe that you might have been exposed to the disease, it’s particularly important to know how, when, and where you can get a coronavirus test so that you can keep yourself, and others, safe.

If you’re wondering “how can I get tested for coronavirus?” or “where can I find COVID-19 testing near me?” read on. In this article, I’ll explain the basic COVID-19 testing options, including how to test for coronavirus when you have active symptoms, and when and where you should get a coronavirus antibody test if you suspect you’ve already been exposed.

What Is Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

COVID-19 is a highly contagious virus that is thought to spread between humans through the droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs, talks, sneezes, or laughs. More than 36 million Americans have become infected with COVID-19 since January 2020, and more than 130,000 Americans have died from the disease.

Patients with COVID-19 can range from being completely asymptomatic, meaning that they don’t show any symptoms of the disease, to suffering from severe symptoms with long-term consequences, or even dying from the disease.

Most cases are mild and patients recover from COVID-19 safely at home. Cases typically involve symptoms like:

Some patients can also experience gastrointestinal issues like:

If you suspect that you have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing any symptoms that may be related to the disease, it’s crucial that you isolate yourself from other people immediately. You may not even have to leave the house to get tested and can use an at-home COVID-19 testing kit. Once you have been tested, self-isolate until you can get your results back. If your results come back positive, you will need to continue to isolate yourself from other people for at least ten days, or longer if your symptoms persist.

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Types of COVID-19 Tests

There are two basic coronavirus test options for people who are concerned about their exposure to COVID-19.

  • A diagnostic (viral) test: A nasal swab, saliva test, or oral swab that tells you if you are currently suffering from an active COVID-19 infection. Viral tests can’t tell you if you’ve had an infection in the past.
  • An antibody (serology) test: A blood test that tells you if you have had a COVID-19 infection in the recent past. Serology tests can’t tell you if you have an active infection, only that you’ve already recovered from one.

The most common type of diagnostic, or viral test, is called a molecular or polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Sometimes, people refer to this test as a “coronavirus lab test.” This test can verify whether or not a patient currently has COVID-19 by testing their saliva or nasal fluid for the genetic material (RNA) that indicates the presence of the virus.

A newer diagnostic test, called the antigen test, can also detect the presence of COVID-19 in a patient by testing a nasal fluid or saliva for proteins that are part of the virus. Antigen tests are sometimes referred to as the “coronavirus rapid test” because they are faster and less expensive than PCR tests. However, they are also less sensitive, and produce more false negatives, meaning that some patients who have COVID-19 might be told that they do not. Doctors will sometimes order a PCR test to confirm an antigen’s test results, just to make sure that the results are accurate.

For patients who believe they may have had COVID-19 and have already recovered, doctors may order an antibody, or serology, test. In those tests, medical practitioners will screen a sample of the patient’s blood for antibodies that indicate they have fought off a COVID-19 infection.

With any coronavirus test, how long you wait for results depends on the type of test, lab availability, and other factors.

How to Know Your COVID-19 Test is Reputable

Because COVID-19 spreads so rapidly, demand for tests has outstripped supply. As a result, less-proven or medically inaccurate tests have appeared on the market. Getting the wrong test results can be dangerous: if a patient who has COVID-19 is convinced they do not, they may not take the precautions they need to in order to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

If you suspect that you have COVID-19, it’s important that you do your research to ensure the accuracy of any test you are taking by making sure it’s peer-reviewed, medical-grade, and scientifically-backed. I recommend testing be done either through a hospital or a reputable company, such as K Health where you know testing solutions have been fully vetted and are medically sound.

When to Get Tested for COVID-19

If you are concerned about an active COVID-19 infection, you may want to get a viral test. You should only get a viral test if:

  • You have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last 2-14 days
  • You are suffering from any symptoms that seem related to the disease

If you suspect you need a viral test, self-isolate until you are able to get tested. Do not leave the house except to receive medical treatment. When you get tested, wear a mask and practice safe social distancing. After you get your test, return home and stay isolated until you receive your results.

If you believe you have already recuperated from COVID-19 and want to be sure, an antibody test may confirm whether or not your suspicions are correct. You do not have to self-isolate before you get the test. Because of high demand and short supply, antibody tests are not always available. Call your doctor to see if you can receive antibody testing or check local listings for more information.

Where to Get Tested for COVID-19

There are two ways that you can get tested in the United States: in a clinic or at home.

Patients can find a medical clinic, testing site, or doctor’s office that is administering tests. When you arrive, a health practitioner will swab your nose, throat, or the inside of your cheek to take a sample of your bodily fluids. They will either screen the sample on-site, and give you the results within a few minutes, or send the sample to a lab and call you with the results in a few days. Although this is a safe and easy way to get screened, coronavirus test cost and availability can vary widely from state to state and from clinic to clinic. Call ahead to make sure that you will be allowed access to a test when you arrive.

Patients can also take a coronavirus test at home. The FDA has recently approved coronavirus home test options that are safe and easy to use. You can receive a coronavirus test kit in the mail, that may require you to swab the inside of your nose or cheek or spit into a tube to provide a saliva sample. You then send the sample back to a lab for screening.

Understanding Your COVID-19 Test Results

It’s important to understand your COVID-19 test results so that you can take the appropriate steps to protect your health and the health of those around you.

If you take a diagnostic (PCR) or antigen test and you:

  • Test positive for COVID-19: It means that you have the disease and you can spread it to others. Take immediate precautionary measures, including isolating yourself for at least ten days, or longer if your symptoms persist.
  • Test negative for COVID-19: It means that you most likely do not have the disease but it is not a 100% confirmation. If you have symptoms that seem related to COVID-19, talk to a doctor about whether or not you should be tested again to ensure you didn’t receive a false negative result.

If you take an antibody or serology test and you:

  • Test positive for antibodies: It means that you have most likely been infected by COVID-19 and recovered. Do not assume that because you have had COVID-19 once you cannot get it again; doctors still do not know how much, if any, immunity patients have from the disease once they’ve developed antibodies for it.
  • Test negative for antibodies: It means that you have either never been infected with COVID-19, or you were infected long enough ago that you no longer have antibodies for it.
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What to Do If You Test Positive for COVID-19

If you test positive for COVID-19, you must take immediate precautionary measures to avoid spreading it to anyone else. These measures include that you:

  • Isolate yourself from others
  • Do not leave home except to get medical care
  • Wear a mask, even in your own home if you are around humans or pets
  • Wash your hands with soap and water
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes by using your elbow, not your hand
  • Avoid sharing household items
  • Clean common surfaces every day
  • Hydrate, rest, and monitor your symptoms
  • Call your doctor before you seek in-person medical attention to allow them to prepare for your arrival
  • If you’ve had close contact with others, let them know so they can isolate

If at any point you experience trouble breathing, feel pain or pressure in your chest, feel confused or exhausted, see a bluish tint in your lips or face, or feel like you have other life-threatening symptoms, go to the emergency room. Call ahead to make sure that the staff at the hospital can prepare for your arrival.

How K Health Can Help

If you are concerned that you may have covid, it’s important to talk to a doctor. Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Neil Brown, MD

With 20 years of ER experience, Dr. Brown has worked at top US hospitals including University of Illinois, Chicago and IU Health Arnett Hospital.