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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
You may have heard that the COVID nasal swab test is painful. You might have even avoided getting tested for that reason. But rest assured, while it can be a little uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be painful. And on the plus side, it only takes a few seconds to complete.
Let’s take a closer look at why the PCR nasal swab can cause discomfort, and check out some of the other COVID testing options available.
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Does the PCR test hurt?
The PCR test is considered the most reliable COVID test available. It’s usually done by a nasopharyngeal swab, which goes deep into your nose to sample the most secretions possible. The test is sometimes done with a long cotton swab that goes into the back of the throat through your mouth. While saliva tests (which require you to spit into a container) are another option, they’re not as widely available. Research seems to show that the nasal swab is the most accurate (Wang, 2020).
Sticking something far up your nasal passage doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience. But, as we mentioned, it shouldn’t be painful. And the test takes just a few seconds per nostril, so it’s over before you know it.
You can do the rapid test with a shallower nasal swab. It’s said to be more comfortable than the PCR test, and results are typically faster. However, this test is less accurate than PCR tests, meaning it may miss some cases of COVID (FDA, 2020).
Even though the nasopharyngeal swab goes deep into the nostril, the PCR test is very safe. Hundreds of millions of tests have been administered to date, and studies have shown that complications are almost non-existent (Föh, 2020).
What’s the difference between PCR and rapid antigen tests?
The PCR test can detect a virus at very low levels, so it’s considered highly sensitive. A highly sensitive test is good at identifying a person who has COVID. The PCR test is also highly specific, meaning it’s also good at identifying when a person does not have the virus. When a test is both sensitive and specific, it’s considered very accurate.
The rapid antigen test is not as good at identifying people who have COVID as the PCR test. That means there’s a higher likelihood of getting a false negative result. If you get a negative result from a rapid antigen test, but you have symptoms of COVID or were exposed to someone with the virus, you can’t rely on that negative test result. If you suspect you may have COVID, you might need to confirm your results with a PCR test (Krüttgen, 2020).
How long do test results take?
One major difference between antigen and PCR tests is how quickly the results come back. With antigen tests, you’ll usually get results within 30 minutes. In some cases, you can even get an at-home rapid antigen test. Some at-home tests can take as little as 15 minutes from start to finish, with results available right from your smartphone.
Allergies vs. COVID-19: how to tell the difference
The PCR test needs to be processed by a lab using special machinery. How quickly you get results depends on where you get the test, which lab they use, and the logistics of the process.
What is an antibody test, and does it hurt?
Unlike the PCR and rapid antigen tests, a COVID antibody test does not diagnose infection. This means it cannot tell if you currently have the virus. It tells you if you’ve had COVID-19 in the past or if you were vaccinated against the virus (Zolton, 2020).
Antibody tests use a blood sample, not a nasal or nasopharyngeal swab. It can be done with either a finger prick or a blood draw from a vein.
Don’t be afraid to get a coronavirus test
There’s so much about COVID-19 that can be scary, but getting tested shouldn’t be one of them. Whether you’re getting a PCR test or a rapid antigen test, you can expect a few seconds of discomfort that will go away quickly as soon as the test is done.
Even though COVID vaccines are available, it’s still important to wear a mask and practice social distancing if you are not fully vaccinated or if you’re around other people who are not vaccinated. And don’t forget about the other crucial element when it comes to keeping the virus contained: if you have symptoms of COVID-19 or if you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive, it’s important to get tested.
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- Föh, B., Borsche, M., Balck, A., Taube, S., Rupp, J., Klein, C., & Katalinic, A. (2020). Complications of nasal and pharyngeal swabs – a relevant challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic?. The European respiratory journal, 2004004. Advance online publication. Doi: 10.1183/13993003.04004-2020. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7736753/
- Krüttgen, A., Cornelissen, C. G., Dreher, M., Hornef, M. W., Imöhl, M., & Kleines, M. (2021). Comparison of the SARS-CoV-2 Rapid antigen test to the real star Sars-CoV-2 RT PCR kit. Journal of virological methods, 288, 114024. Doi: 10.1016/j.jviromet.2020.114024. Retrieved at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7678421/
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- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2020). A closer look at COVID-19 diagnostic testing. Retrieved at https://www.fda.gov/health-professionals/closer-look-covid-19-diagnostic-testing on January 10, 2021
- Wang, X., Tan, L., Wang, X., Liu, W., Lu, Y., Cheng, L., & Sun, Z. (2020). Comparison of nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs for SARS-CoV-2 detection in 353 patients received tests with both specimens simultaneously. International journal of infectious diseases : IJID : official publication of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, 94, 107–109. Doi: 10.1016/j.ijid.2020.04.023. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7166099/
- Zolton J. R. (2020). COVID-19 antibody testing: future directions. Global Reproductive Health, 5. Doi: 10.1097/GRH.0000000000000045. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7480799/