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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.
COVID test results are important: knowing whether that scratchy throat is just a plain old cold or a case of coronavirus can be the difference between spending time with your family or planning out the next ten days in quarantine. And getting those test results quickly is crucial. Waiting days for results can increase the risk of the virus spreading.
If you need same-day COVID test results, your best bet is probably a rapid antigen test. These tests are widely available at your local pharmacy, online, and at big retailers, and they can give you results within minutes. We’ve covered everything you need to know about getting same-day COVID test results.
Same-day COVID-19 test results
No matter why you’re getting tested, whether it’s because you’re experiencing symptoms, recently were exposed to someone who tested positive, or just to make sure you aren’t infected before a family gathering or a night out, getting your results quickly is crucial.
There are two main types of COVID tests: antigen tests (also known as rapid tests) and PCR tests. In general, antigen tests are faster because they don’t require any special machinery to be processed. The test kits come with everything you need to get your results immediately. All you need to do is swab your nose or your mouth, swirl the swab in a little container of fluid that comes with the test and then put the fluid on the test strip. Results are typically available in as little as 10 minutes.
On the other hand, PCR tests can’t be done entirely at home but may be preferred in some situations because they are a little bit better at identifying the virus. Since they require special equipment, how quickly you get results is usually a function of where you get tested. If you get your test done at urgent care, results will usually be available within 72 hours but can sometimes come back faster, even as soon as 24 hours after you take the test.
Same-day PCR COVID testing
Unlike rapid tests, PCR tests have to be processed using special laboratory equipment that isn’t available everywhere. PCR machines are typically available in hospitals but aren’t usually available in urgent care clinics, pharmacies, or healthcare providers’ offices. Some places can get results quickly, but in other cases, people have waited nine days or longer to get results, rendering the test results obsolete (NPR, 2020).
If you opt for a PCR test, or you’ve been told to get one in advance of travel or an event, make sure to confirm with the testing center how long it will take to get results. While some facilities can offer same-day PCR COVID testing, access can vary as testing demand fluctuates. This is important to keep in mind if you need the test results within a specific time frame.
International and domestic travel may require you to show a negative PCR test result from the 72 hours prior to your flight. If that’s the case, finding a reliable place to get your test done within that time frame is crucial.
Speak to your local urgent care or pharmacy ahead of time to make sure that they will have the test available and the capacity to process your test in time for boarding since airlines can be very strict.
Antigen vs. antibody tests: what’s the difference?
When to get a COVID test
If you’ve recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or you’re experiencing symptoms yourself, it’s a good idea to get tested. It can take a little while for the virus to appear in your system, so if you were exposed today, according to the CDC you should wait 5-7 days before getting tested and steer clear of other people in the meantime (CDC, 2021).
Keep in mind, though, that a PCR test can remain positive long after you’re no longer contagious so it’s not a good way to determine whether or not you can head back out and spend time around other people.
If you tested positive and developed symptoms of COVID, the CDC recommends waiting ten days from your first positive test with more than 24 hrs fever-free before venturing out again to be around other people. If you never developed symptoms, the CDC says it’s okay to go out fully masked five days after your first positive test (CDC, 2021b).
When you are infected with the coronavirus, you’re most likely to infect other people in the three days before the symptoms appear (when you don’t even know that you’re sick). After the symptoms appear, the amount of virus in your body starts to go down, so each day that passes makes you less likely to infect others. But even when you’re no longer capable of spreading the coronavirus, your PCR will still be positive. Rapid antigen testing is good at detecting the virus during a person’s most infectious days, and that’s what matters most when it comes to preventing the spread (CDC, 2021).
How fast are at-home COVID tests?
At-home tests have become available and will likely be even more accessible soon. But not all tests are created equal. Some tests are done entirely at home (like the Ellume and On/Go tests) and can give you results within 30 minutes. Others have you collect the sample at home but send it to a laboratory for analysis (like the Pixel test), which means results can take quite a bit longer. Some at-home tests require prescriptions, while others are available over the counter. New tests become available as the FDA approves them for emergency use (FDA-b, 2020; FDA-c, 2021).
At-home COVID test kits: what you need to know
Same-day antibody testing
Unlike PCR and rapid antigen tests, antibody tests aren’t used to diagnose COVID-19. Instead, they look for your body’s response to the virus. A high level of antibodies, also known as a “high titer,” indicates either that you’ve been effectively vaccinated and your body has mounted an immune response to the vaccine or that you’ve had COVID-19 in the past.
When do you need same-day results?
Getting your results as quickly as possible is always a priority. While waiting for results, a person might continue to infect others. By the time a positive result arrives, it can be hard to remember all of the people you may have interacted with to alert them that they need to get tested. In extreme cases, when people have waited longer than a week to get their results, they’ve been of little or no use at all.
If you’ve been asked to get a COVID test (like if you’re traveling somewhere and the airline requires it), you can search for a testing site that might be able to provide you with that service. Keep in mind that a negative test isn’t a guarantee, and it’s a good idea to keep your eyes on local COVID levels to determine if it’s risky to spend time with people outside of your own household, especially if they or you are not vaccinated.
Vaccines are widely available and very effective when it comes to preventing severe disease. If you haven’t been able to get a shot yet, look at your local government website to find out where you can sign up. Until you’re vaccinated, it is a good idea to continue wearing a mask and avoid high-risk situations like large gatherings and events (CDC, 2020).
The best masks to protect against COVID
What you should do while you wait for the results
If you’ve had a known exposure to a person who tested positive for the coronavirus, or if you’re feeling sick, you need to isolate. This means staying home and keeping away from other people in your household, if possible, especially if you’re feeling sick (CDC, 2020).
If you have mild symptoms of COVID, you can also opt for an at-home COVID-19 test to avoid exposing others. If you’re asymptomatic, these tests are still a good option.
Even if you are vaccinated, there’s still a chance that you could catch the Covid. Make sure to isolate until you receive your negative test results.
Always follow CDC guidelines regarding isolation.
What should I do if my test is positive?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you test positive for the coronavirus, you should isolate yourself at home, including from the people in your household, if possible. It’s okay to stop isolating once (CDC, 2021):
- At least five days have passed since your positive test if you did not have any symptoms, and you continue to wear a mask around others for the next five days.
- At least ten days have passed since your symptoms first appeared.
- You have been fever-free for at least 24 hours without using fever-reducing medication.
- Any other COVID symptoms you have are improving.
Can you get COVID after being vaccinated?
It’s important to know that loss of taste and smell may persist for weeks or months after recovery and is not a sign of being infectious. If you’re not sure, consult with a healthcare provider before you stop isolating.
If you have a negative result, but you have any of the telltale signs of COVID, such as a loss of sense of taste or smell, it may be a good idea to get another test to make sure. If your first test was a rapid COVID-19 test, you might want to consider getting a PCR test, which can be a little bit better at catching cases of coronavirus.
And, of course, if you’re experiencing serious symptoms of COVID-19, such as shortness of breath, bluish lips or face, or changes in consciousness, you should seek emergency medical attention.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, July 19). COVID-19 Quarantine and Isolation. Retrieved Sep. 8, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/quarantine-isolation.html
- Guglielmi, G. (2020, September 16). Fast coronavirus tests: What they can and can’t do. Nature News Feature. Retrieved Jan. 12, 2021 from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02661-2#
- NPR: Feldman, N. (2020, June 16). Philly officials want you to get tested for COVID. People trying say it’s not easy. Retrieved Jan.11, 2021 from https://whyy.org/articles/philly-officials-want-you-to-get-tested-for-covid-those-who-have-tried-say-its-not-that-easy/
- Sakamoto, S., Putalun, W., Vimolmangkang, S., Phoolcharoen, W., Shoyama, Y., Tanaka, H., & Morimoto, S. (2018, January). Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for the quantitative/qualitative analysis of plant secondary metabolites. Retrieved Jan. 12, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5775980/#CR7
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA-a). Center for Devices and Radiological Health. (2021). EUA Authorized Serology Test Performance. Retrieved Sep. 8, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19-emergency-use-authorizations-medical-devices/eua-authorized-serology-test-performance
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA-b). (2020, December 15). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes Antigen Test as First Over-the-Counter Fully At-Home Diagnostic Test for COVID-19. Retrieved Jan. 11, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-antigen-test-first-over-counter-fully-home-diagnostic
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA-c). (2020, December 15). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes Antigen Test as First Over-the-Counter Fully At-Home Diagnostic Test for COVID-19. Retrieved Sep. 8, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-antigen-test-first-over-counter-fully-home-diagnostic
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.