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Oct 28, 2021
6 min read

At-home COVID test kits: what you need to know

At-home COVID test kits are a convenient alternative to in-person COVID testing. Test kits can be purchased online and in pharmacies. Some tests can give you a result within 15 minutes without you ever having to leave your home.

gina-allegretti

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD

Written by Gina Allegretti, MD

Important

Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.

If you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or are having COVID-19 symptoms, it can be hard to go out and get tested. You might not live near a testing site. You might not want to wait a week for results and risk exposing others. You might even feel too sick to leave your home. Whatever the reason, at-home COVID test kits could be the solution.  

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What are at-home COVID-19 testing kits?

COVID testing kits let you get tested and diagnosed quickly and easily, all in the convenience of your own home. Test kits contain detailed instructions so that you or a member of your household can perform the test without the need to visit a healthcare provider.  

What kind of tests are available?

Like the in-person COVID tests available at pharmacies, clinics, and testing sites, different testing options are available for at-home use. 

There are two main types of diagnostic tests (which will tell you whether or not you have COVID right now). One type is the rapid (antigen) test, while the other is the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test. While the rapid tests can be performed entirely at home, the PCR test samples can be collected at home but have to be processed using special machinery in a lab, meaning you need to send your sample out for processing, and it can take a lot more time to get results.

If you want to know whether you’ve had COVID in the past, or if you’ve been vaccinated and you want to see if you have any protection against the COVID-19 infection, you can get a COVID antibody test. These blood tests are also available at home using a finger prick test kit that uses a blood sample you need to send into a lab for results (FDA, 2021).

At-home antigen tests

If you need results quickly, your best bet is going to be a rapid test. These tests, also known as antigen tests, work a lot like home pregnancy tests, and you’ll typically get results just as quickly. Most of these tests come with either a cotton swab you use to collect a sample from your mouth or nose, or a vial into which you spit.  

The best part about at-home antigen tests is that they don’t require any special machinery for analysis. That means you can usually have an answer in 10–15 minutes. These tests are typically pretty good at catching active cases of COVID, especially if you’re experiencing symptoms. They’re not quite as good as PCR tests, though, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing—more on that below. 

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests

PCR tests look for a virus’s genetic material. This genetic material, viral RNA, is found inside the virus capsule. The PCR test is analyzed by a special machine that makes copies of any genetic material in the sample, so even a tiny amount of viral RNA won’t escape detection. 

Viral RNA is fragile and breaks down very quickly, so if a PCR test is positive, it’s a great indication that you have the virus in your body now. Sometimes, though, they can be a little too sensitive to be useful. PCR tests typically remain positive long after a person is no longer contagious. Another disadvantage is that PCR samples have to be processed in a lab, so it can take longer to get results. 

If you took a rapid test that was negative and you have symptoms of COVID-19, you may need to get a PCR test to confirm the results and make sure you’re really negative.

Antibody tests

If you suspect you had COVID in the past and want to check, or if you want to see if you have good protection against the virus after getting the vaccine, you may want an antibody test. Antibody tests look for antibodies, which are your body’s response to the virus or vaccine. The test identifies virus-fighting proteins made by your immune system during a COVID-19 infection or after vaccination. 

These tests usually require a blood sample rather than a nasal swab or saliva. It can take up to two weeks for your immune system to make antibodies after an infection, so antibody tests cannot tell you if you’re currently infected with the coronavirus. 

Are at-home COVID test results accurate? 

In general, tests that have received emergency use authorization from the FDA are pretty accurate. There are ways to maximize the accuracy of these tests, though, and avoid false-negative or false-positive results. 

First, make sure you follow the kit instructions carefully. Following the directions properly increases the chance that your results are accurate. When used properly, home test kits that have been approved for use by the FDA will catch about eight out of every 10 cases of coronavirus (Lindler, 2021). One study suggested that tests that use saliva rather than a nasal or mouth swab were actually better at catching cases of COVID, identifying more than nine out of every ten cases of coronavirus (Rao, 2021). 

In general, PCR tests will be more accurate than rapid tests, but with the disadvantage of increased cost and slower results. If you don’t have symptoms or a known recent exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID, you can trust that your negative test result is reliable. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID, particularly classic ones like a loss of sense of smell or taste, a negative result may be less reliable, and it’s a good idea to take a second test or get a PCR test done to make sure. 

Where can I get an at-home test kit? 

You can purchase at-home test kits online and in national pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens. Some people choose to keep a few kits in their house so they’re available at a moment’s notice. Sometimes the kits require a prescription from a healthcare provider, but most are available over-the-counter. Your insurance carrier might cover an at-home test, but it varies by carrier and test, so you should check with your insurance provider to make sure.

What at-home kits are available? 

Many different companies offer at-home test kits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) keeps an updated list of all self-tests with full approval or FDA emergency use authorization. You can view that list here. (FDA, 2021). 

In October of 2021, the White House announced that the NIH (National Institutes of Health) would be investing in efforts to boost the availability of COVID-19 tests to better combat the pandemic. So, while at-home tests can be pricey, those costs are expected to drop in the near future (White House, 2021).

Can I use an at-home testing kit if I’m vaccinated? 

You can still self-test for COVID if you’ve been vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine does not affect the results of your test. No vaccine is 100% effective, and there have been cases of breakthrough infections after vaccination, so getting tested is an essential step to continuing our efforts to curb the virus. 

When should I use an at-home COVID test?

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has guidelines on when you should consider taking a self-test. You should get tested if (CDC, 2021a, CDC 2021b): 

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, or loss of taste and smell.
  • You are unvaccinated, and you were in a high-risk situation such as an indoor crowd, a plane, or traveled to a high-risk area.
  • You were in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 (even if you are fully vaccinated).

What if I get a positive result? 

If your at-home test is positive, you should follow CDC guidelines for isolation and quarantine. If you don’t have symptoms, you should still isolate yourself from others for 10 days to avoid spreading the virus. If you have symptoms, the CDC recommends that you isolate for at least 10 days and remain quarantined until you are fever-free for 24 hours and your symptoms improve (CDC, 2021c). 

If you have severe symptoms of COVID, including bluish lips, difficulty breathing, dizziness, or loss of consciousness, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. 

Getting vaccinated and following social distancing and masking recommendations are the best ways to protect yourself and those around you from COVID. But if you suspect you have COVID or need to get a test quickly, getting tested doesn’t have to be stressful. If leaving your home to get tested isn’t the best option for you, at-home tests can be a quick and easy alternative.

References

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021a). Self Testing. Retrieved on Oct. 21, 2021 from ​​https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/testing/self-testing.html
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021b). COVID-19 Testing Overview. Retrieved Oct. 21, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/testing.html
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021c). Quarantine and Isolation. Retrieved Oct. 21, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/quarantine-isolation.html
  4. FDA. (2021) Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA issues emergency use authorization for the symbiotica COVID-19 self-collected antibody test system. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved Oct. 28, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-issues-emergency-use-authorization-symbiotica-covid-19-self 
  5. Lindner, A. K., Nikolai, O., Kausch, F., Wintel, M., Hommes, F., Gertler, M., et al. (2021). Head-to-head comparison of SARS-CoV-2 antigen-detecting rapid test with self-collected nasal swab versus professional-collected nasopharyngeal swab. The European Respiratory Journal, 57(4), 2003961. doi: 10.1183/13993003.03961-2020. Retrieved from https://erj.ersjournals.com/content/57/4/2003961.long
  6. Rao, M., Rashid, F. A., Sabri, F., Jamil, N. N., Seradja, V., Abdullah, N. A., et al. (2021). COVID-19 screening test by using random oropharyngeal saliva. Journal of Medical Virology, 93(4), 2461–2466. doi: 10.1002/jmv.26773. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jmv.26773
  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2021). In Vitro Diagnostics EUAs – Molecular Diagnostic Tests for SARS-CoV-2. Retrieved on Oct. 21, 2021 from  https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-emergency-use-authorizations-medical-devices/in-vitro-diagnostics-euas-molecular-diagnostic-tests-sars-cov-2
  8. World Health Organization (WHO). (2021). Antigen-detection in the diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 infection. Retrieved on Oct. 21, 2021 from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/antigen-detection-in-the-diagnosis-of-sars-cov-2infection-using-rapid-immunoassays