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Do You Still Need to Test for COVID

May 06, 2023May 06, 2023

Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.

Even though COVID-19 is no longer considered a public health emergency, experts encourage maintaining certain health protocols to keep everyone healthy and safe.

This includes continuing to test for COVID-19, particularly if you are experiencing any symptoms related to the virus or happen to have a known exposure to someone who is COVID-positive, Pragna Patel, MD, MPH, chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told Health in an email.

"Testing can be helpful even when you don't have symptoms or recent exposure to COVID-19, such as before an event or visiting someone at higher risk," Dr. Patel said.

Other experts add that continuing to follow health protocols like isolating at home and testing can protect and prevent other people from getting infected and sick, including friends or loved ones who are immunocompromised.

"If you have people in your life who potentially could have huge complications from getting COVID infected and you’re going to see them, I think it would be worth knowing what it is that you have," Yuka Manabe, MD, director of the Center for Innovative Diagnostics for Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Health.

Getty Images / Grace Cary

Dr. Patel reiterated that testing is recommended for anyone who has symptoms related to COVID, as well as individuals who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

People who have had exposure to someone known or suspected of having COVID-19 "should be tested at least 5 days after the exposure," Dr. Patel explained. If symptoms develop after 5 days, they should get tested immediately.

Testing can also be useful even if you don't have any symptoms or recent exposure to COVID-19, Dr. Manabe said. For example, if you live with or plan to visit someone at higher risk or have a large gathering coming up like a wedding, knowing whether or not you have COVID can protect yourself and others.

"I think testing early before you have symptoms would be ideal, especially if you have other people in your household that you want to protect, because you know the superpower of COVID and that it can be transmitted even when the person is asymptomatic," Dr. Manabe added.

If you are asymptomatic but plan to take a COVID-19 test, Dr. Patel recommended testing as close to the time of the event as possible (at least 1–2 days before) to help you make informed decisions about your health and your risk of spreading the virus to others.

"If you use an antigen test, follow recommendations for repeat testing to be confident in a negative result," she said. Additionally, some places may test people without symptoms or recent exposure to help keep COVID-19 from spreading to others, mainly those who are at higher risk for severe illness.

Additionally, people who suspect they have the flu or allergies may also want to consider taking a COVID-19 test, especially because symptoms related to these illnesses overlap.

"Coughing and a runny nose are symptoms of both COVID-19 and allergies, which can make things confusing," Dr. Patel clarified. "Because there is an overlap in symptoms with colds and COVID-19, taking a COVID-19 test can help determine what is causing your illness."

While these are the situations in which experts recommend people to take a test, it's important to note that anyone curious to find out whether or not they have COVID-19 can take one, Jorge Salinas, MD, assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Stanford University, told Health.

There are still many options available for COVID-19 testing, including PCR tests and antigen tests, Dr. Salinas said. But according to the CDC, PCR tests are considered the "gold standard" because they are more likely to detect the virus than antigen tests.

Samples collected in a PCR test are usually taken by a healthcare provider and then transported to a laboratory for testing, which can take up to 3 days for patients to receive results.

However, Dr. Salinas said home antigen tests are likely to be the "most convenient testing approach" for most people who are looking to get tested because they can produce results within 15 to 30 minutes.

Dr. Patel noted that positive results from rapid antigen tests are usually very accurate and reliable, however, they are less likely to detect the virus than PCR tests, especially when symptoms are not present.

"Therefore, a single negative antigen test cannot rule out infection," she said. "To be confident you do not have COVID-19, [the] FDA recommends two negative antigen tests for individuals with symptoms or three antigen tests for those without symptoms, performed 48 hours apart."

If you would like to take an antigen test, there are many self and at-home test options available for purchase online or in pharmacies and retail stores. Dr. Patel recommended any testing options that are recommended by the CDC and authorized and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Dr. Patel added that people can also visit community-based testing locations such as a pharmacy or health center to schedule a testing appointment. "These locations may offer PCR or antigen tests, and provide low- or no-cost testing for everyone, including people without insurance."

PCR or antigen tests may also be available through your local health department.

Dr. Patel confirmed the reliability of self-test results, specifically when the result is positive. However, negative results from these tests don't necessarily rule out that you could have an infection. People who receive a negative result may want to consider repeat testing.

"Invalid results from self-tests mean the test did not work properly and you need to take a new test to get an accurate result," Dr. Patel explained.

Before taking a rapid test at home, it's important to check the expiration date. If a test or any part of the test kit is expired, it could give inaccurate or invalid test results.

Dr. Patel said that most tests will have a label on the test kit with an expiration date. In addition, individuals can check online by looking at the expiration date column in the FDA's list of authorized at-home OTC COVID-19 diagnostic tests. That list will also show if the expiration date for the test has been extended.

"As long as they’re not expired, the tests are reliable. Though no test is perfect, and if persistently symptomatic, someone can test more than once over consecutive days," Dr. Salinas reiterated.

If you still have questions about COVID-19 testing, such as when it would be a good time to take a test or what testing option is best for you, experts recommend talking with a healthcare provider.

Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget. Statement of Administration Policy.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of COVID-19.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 testing: what you need to know.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Self-testing at home or anywhere.