What You Need To Know About At-Home COVID Testing
Stop me if this sounds familiar: You wake up with a slight throat irritation and immediately assume it’s COVID-19. You run through your schedule for the next 10 days and weigh what’s cancelable and what you’ll need to take care of from home. Then you realize you slept with the window open and don’t have any other symptoms of being sick (yet). You wonder: Maybe I’m imagining things.
You head to the medicine cabinet, grab whatever COVID test kit you got in the mail months ago and diligently begin reading the directions, which instruct you to wash your hands and earn a PhD in chemistry before you begin.
When you’ve completed your at-home science experiment, you wait to see if the results will show right away before vowing to return exactly 15 minutes later as prescribed. Then you get busy making school lunches, checking your email and, all of a sudden, 40 minutes go by before you remember to revisit your results. Crap! Is the test still valid? Is that a line? Did one appear and then go away and I missed it? Should I start over? Gah! You grab another box from the medicine cabinet to do the steps over again and realize this one is different. Ah, well. A COVID test is a COVID test is a COVID test, right?
Not necessarily. COVID tests are not all created equal, says Joseph Mann, BSN, MSN, FNP-C, global medical science liaison at BD, a company which produces at-home tests. That’s why it’s important to understand the differences among them and determine which one is right for you. Here are all your COVID test questions answered, so you can swab with confidence.
When Should I Take A COVID-19 Test?
Testing will be more important than ever this cold and flu season, considering most mask mandates have been lifted and people are generally taking fewer precautions to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a test within five to seven days of developing COVID-19 symptoms.
But there are still occasions to test even when you don’t have any symptoms, such as:
- After coming into contact with someone who has COVID-19—if you’re asymptomatic, wait at least five full days before testing; if you start experiencing symptoms, test at the first sign
- Before and after traveling
- Prior to coming into contact with anyone at high-risk for severe COVID, including those over 65 and people with underlying medical conditions such as cancer or heart disease
- Before attending any indoor meeting, gathering, or social event
Should I Test More Than Once?
If any of the at-home tests on the market today gives you a positive result, showing that you have COVID-19, there’s no need to test again. False positives are rare; if your test comes back positive, the chances are extremely high that you do, in fact, have COVID.
If it comes back negative, however, you may need to retest. First, check that you administered the test correctly. If there’s a chance you didn’t swab well enough, you misread the directions, or the test is expired, retest using a fresh testing kit. If you’re certain you tested properly, do so again in one to two days; it’s still possible you have COVID that just isn’t detectable in your system yet.
“The viral load [the amount of virus found in a sample] of an asymptomatic person tends to be much lower than in a person who is showing symptoms, meaning COVID is more difficult for the test to detect,” Mann says. “Testing again after 24 to 48 hours gives the virus time to replicate and makes sure that you didn’t miss a potential positive result.”
Should I Test At Home Or Go To The Pharmacy?
It depends on your reason for testing. Some situations—including employment, hospital admission, and traveling, such as on a cruise ship—require polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing through a provider’s office, pharmacy, or lab. Your doctor may recommend PCR testing if you have symptoms but at-home tests have been negative.
At-home tests are perfect for most other situations when you need results quickly and affordably. And when you opt for a test like the BD Veritor™ At-Home COVID-19* Test, which you can order on Amazon, you don’t even need to leave home when you’re sick, or risk infecting anyone else.
Are All At-Home Tests The Same?
Not quite. There are two categories of at-home tests: antigen tests and molecular tests. Both have pros and cons. Molecular tests are more sensitive, meaning they can detect a COVID-19 infection even when a person’s viral load isn’t significant. However, these tests take longer to process (about 30 minutes) and are more expensive.
“Rapid antigen tests, on the other hand, are slightly less sensitive but produce results in 10 to 15 minutes and are more affordable,” Mann says.
Most at-home antigen tests fall into this category. Among rapid antigen tests, efficacy rates are similar across brands as long as you follow the manufacturer’s instructions to a T. What really distinguishes one brand test from another are the test kit’s features.
What Should I Look For In A COVID Test?
First, make sure the test you’re planning to purchase is on the list of FDA-authorized at-home COVID-19 tests, and read up on how to tell if a test is counterfeit. Next, you’ll want to seek out a test that provides clear step-by-step instructions, so you don’t have to wonder if you did it right. Lastly, opt for one that produces digital results, so there’s no chance of misinterpreting what all those lines mean. (Is one line good? Two? Why is there a third?) One such test is the BD Veritor™ At-Home COVID-19* Test, which has an app that reads the test for you so there is no confusion.
How Far Up My Nose Do I Need To Stick This Thing?
Probably not as far as you think. If you had a COVID-19 test in the early days of the pandemic, you probably wondered if the person collecting your sample was trying to hit brain. Now we know you can get an adequate sample by inserting the swab less than three-quarters of an inch into each nostril and following the test’s collection instructions. Swabbing may tickle, but it should not be painful.
How do you know if you swabbed well enough? Some tests, including the BD Veritor, are equipped with what’s called a sample adequacy line. “This detects mucus in the sample to make sure it was collected correctly,” Mann says. “If the test doesn’t detect any, then it will produce an ‘invalid’ result and you’ll know you need to retest with a new test kit.”
Tests with a sample adequacy line ensure users perform the swab collection correctly, leading to more reliable result.
What If I Forgot To Check The Test Exactly At The 15-Minute Mark?
Checking your test too early or too late can make the results invalid. The test’s instructions will advise how long to wait before reading your results, usually somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes. Set a timer, if necessary, or look for a test that sends your results directly to your mobile device when ready. If you do miss the mark, then repeat the test so you can check the results in time.
What Should I Do With My Results?
One downside to at-home testing is that people aren’t reporting their results when they should be. Actual infection rates in July 2022 were reportedly found to be seven times higher than reported cases.
“It’s really hard for public health officials to track COVID-19 within communities when a lot of these tests are going unreported,” Mann says. Tracking the virus’s prevalence enables communities to take steps to prevent the spread of infection and ensure there’s adequate medical care and supplies available.
For this reason, as well as ensuring your own proper care, it’s important to share any positive test results with your healthcare provider, so they can be aware of your result and provide treatment as necessary. Also, if you have come into contact with someone who has tested positive, even if you test negative, you should report your test result to your county or state health department so that they can track the spread, or lack thereof, of the virus.
Some at-home COVID-19 tests, such as the BD Veritor test, take care of submitting your results to state and federal health authorities for you through an app that encrypts your personal data. This is the easiest way to report results, and it’s done anonymously—your ZIP code is the only identifying factor that gets reported. If you’re not using this type of test, you’ll need to contact your local health department directly to report your results.
*Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) authorized by the FDA
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