How accurate are at-home COVID tests? When to take them and what your results mean –

At-home COVID-19 tests can give you insight into whether you have a current coronavirus infection and can provide results in as little as a few minutes.

Here’s what you need to know about how to get them, how to use them, when to take them and what your results mean.

What are at-home COVID-19 tests? How do you get them?

Self-tests, or at-home COVID-19 tests, give instant results that PCR tests taken in a laboratory or medical office might take days to deliver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

They detect current infection, not previous infections — which can be detected through antibody testing.

You can order free COVID-19 rapid tests at or through your local health department. They also are sold online and at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.

How accurate are at-home COVID tests?

A PCR test administered by a doctor, health center or pharmacy is the best and most accurate way to test for COVID-19.

However, given a PCR test takes longer to get results, at-home COVID tests may be a necessity in some cases.

Here’s what the CDC says about the accuracy of at-home COVID tests:

  • Positive results are highly reliable. You should stay home for five days and isolate from others.
  • Negative results, however, are not as reliable. A negative test means it did not detect the virus, but that doesn’t rule out an infection. The CDC says to consider repeating the test 24 to 48 hours later. Multiple negative tests increases the confidence you do not have COVID-19.

How do you use at-home COVID-19 tests?

Before you use an at-home COVID-19 test, it is important to read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Tests may vary slightly based on the brand and manufacturer.

You likely will collect a sample using a nasal swab and then use that swab for testing.

After collecting the sample using the nasal swab, it is important that you wash your hands.

When should you take an at-home COVID-19 test?

You should take an at-home COVID-19 test in the following situations, according to the CDC:

  • If you have COVID-19 symptoms
  • Right before an indoor event or gathering
  • At least 5 days after your exposure if you were exposed to someone with COVID-19

What do your test results mean?

If you tested positive, you most likely have an infection and need to isolate from others for five days per CDC guidelines.

It is also a good idea to monitor your symptoms and contact your healthcare provider if they get worse. You should also inform your close contacts and wear a mask around others if you have to be around others.

If you tested negative, the test did not detect the coronavirus, but that does not mean there is no infection present.

If that is the case, consider repeating the test 24-48 hours later and see if you get the same result.

If you think your test results are in error, you can contact the test manufacturer for assistance, use another brand or contact your healthcare provider.

Related stories about COVID-19:

How to get 4 more at-home COVID tests for free

Omicron subvariant BA.2: The new symptoms to look out for

Will a mask protect me against COVID if no one else is wearing one?

Should I get a second booster shot to prevent against COVID?

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