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Antigen vs. antibody tests: what’s the difference?

yael coopermanchimene richa

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD, written by Chimene Richa, MD

Last updated: Jan 10, 2022
4 min read


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.

We’ve all gotten more of an education on infectious disease than we bargained for since the pandemic started. And while we’re almost pros when it comes to understanding which symptoms to look out for, how variants develop, and what the vaccine actually does to protect you from COVID-19, words like “antigen” and “antibody” can leave us scratching our heads. 

To put it simply: antigen tests (also known as rapid tests) look for the virus in your system and check to see if you’re infected with COVID-19 right now. Antibody tests look for your body’s reaction to the virus (think: antibody = your body’s response). There’s also a difference between how the tests are collected: antigen tests are usually a quick nasal swab while antibody tests require a blood sample either from a finger stick or a vein. 


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When should I take an antigen test?

Antigen tests are available both in-person and at home and can be used if you have symptoms of COVID or if you were recently exposed to a person who tested positive for coronavirus. The tests usually take a minute or two to do and results are available within about 15 minutes. 

If you were exposed to a person who has tested positive for the coronavirus, the CDC recommends waiting 5–7 days after you were exposed before you get tested, as your results are unlikely to be positive before then. Even if you do have the virus, a negative test before 5 days won’t mean that you aren’t infected (CDC, 2022). 

If you have symptoms, it’s a good idea to get tested and try to steer clear of the other members of your household if possible. Symptoms of COVID-19 include: 

  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • A loss of taste or smell
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

When should I get an antibody test?

Antibody tests look for your immune system’s reaction to the virus from previous infection or vaccination. When your immune system is exposed to the virus (or some component of it, in the case of vaccination), it produces small molecules that act like magnets which can selectively stick to cells in your body infected with that particular virus. They then help destroy these infected cells, preventing the infection from spreading (Chen, 2005). 

Infection causes these antibodies to be generated, as does vaccination. Theoretically, antibodies should be an indication of protection against future infection. Unfortunately, though, the picture is a little more complex. There are different types of antibodies and having a positive antibody test is not a guarantee of immunity. 

While you might see antibody tests available at your local urgent care clinic or pharmacy, researchers aren’t yet sure whether a positive antibody test indicates real protection against future infection with coronavirus or its different variants, making current antibody testing somewhat less useful (Jiang, 2020).

What about PCR tests?

Like antigen tests, PCR tests are diagnostic tests, meaning they can be used to determine if you have the virus in your body right now. But, as opposed to antigen tests, which are pretty fast and can be done entirely at home, PCR tests require special equipment so the results take longer. 

And while PCR tests are a little bit more accurate when it comes to detecting the virus, that’s not always a good thing. PCR tests can remain positive for months after a person is no longer at risk of transmitting the virus to others, meaning they aren’t a good method for deciding whether or not you should quarantine (Sule, 2020; Sidiq, 2020). 

Comparison of different tests

Types of COVID-19 Test >> Antigen antibody PCR
What does it test for? Presence of viral proteins (diagnostic) Presence of antibodies to COVID Presence of viral genetic material (diagnostic)
What does a positive result most likely mean? You have the virus. You were infected with the virus in the past and recovered or you have been immunized. You have the virus.
What does a negative result most likely mean? Test didn’t pick up any viral proteins. Depending on other factors, you may need results confirmed by a PCR test. You don’t currently have protection against the virus. You likely don’t have the virus in your system.
How fast can you get results? Minutes Minutes Hours to days
What kind of sample? Nasal swab Blood sample Nasal swab or saliva
Accuracy Accurate, but results may need to be confirmed Relatively accurate Very accurate (recommended for diagnosis)


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — COVID-19 Testing Overview. (2021-a, August 2). Retrieved September 9, 2021 from
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Interim Guidelines for COVID-19 Antibody Testing. (2021-b, Sept 21). Retrieved Jan. 11, 2022 from
  3. Chen, S., Lu, D., Zhang, M., Che, J., Yin, Z., Zhang, S., et al. (2005). Double-antigen sandwich ELISA for detection of antibodies to SARS-associated coronavirus in human serum. European Journal of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Disease; 24(8): 549-53. Retrieved from
  4. Chorba, T. (2020). The Concept of the Crown and Its Potential Role in the Downfall of Coronavirus. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 26(9), 2302-2305. Retrieved from
  5. Jiang, J. C., & Zhang, Y. (2020). Serological antibody testing in the COVID-19 pandemic: their molecular basis and applications. Biochemical Society transactions, 48(6), 2851–2863. doi: 10.1042/BST20200744. Retrieved from:
  6. Sule, W. F., & Oluwayelu, D. O. (2020). Real-time RT-PCR for COVID-19 diagnosis: challenges and prospects. The Pan African Medical Journal, 35(Suppl 2), 121. doi: 10.11604/pamj.supp.2020.35.24258. Retrieved from
  7. Sidiq, Z., Hanif, M., Dwivedi, K. K., & Chopra, K. K. (2020). Benefits and limitations of serological assays in COVID-19 infection. The Indian Journal of Tuberculosis, 67(4S), S163–S166. doi: 10.1016/j.ijtb.2020.07.034. Retrieved from

Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.