What to Know about At-Home Testing for COVID-19


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South Shore Health

A top-down look at a COVID-19 rapid antigen self-test kit

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise both locally and nationally, demand for testing is increasing as well.

In the early days of the pandemic, testing options were limited to send-out PCR tests, which required laboratory analysis for processing.

While highly accurate, these tests usually require an office visit or a drive-up swab and can take a few days to generate results.

Today, there are a number of different testing options available, including at-home COVID-19 tests that give results in just 15 minutes.

These self-administered tests can be a great way to rule out or confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis and can give you additional peace of mind before returning to work/school or visiting a vulnerable loved one.

What is a self-test for COVID-19?

Unlike many things related to the pandemic, a self-test is as simple as it sounds: it’s a COVID-19 test that you administer on your own, without a medical professional.

The most common self-test for COVID-19 is a rapid antigen test, which is designed to identify if you have COVID-19 and are infectious. 

These tests are different from PCR tests, which require laboratory analysis and a day or two’s wait to receive your results. 

Self-tests for COVID-19 can be a great way to quickly detect COVID-19 infection, without requiring a trip to your doctor’s office or local testing site.

Are COVID-19 self-tests accurate?

Rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 aren’t as accurate as PCR tests, but they’re still quite accurate.

In fact, a recent study found that rapid antigen tests were 87% accurate in symptomatic patients and 71% accurate in asymptomatic patients.

Rapid tests are particularly good at identifying high levels of the virus – this means they’re a good way to identify individuals who are actively shedding virus and have a higher risk spreading COVID-19.

While false negatives are possible, a false negative likely means that the level of the virus is too low for you to be infectious and risk transmitting the virus to others.

Which COVID-19 self-test should I use?

There are a number of COVID-19 self-tests on the market. 

One of the more popular rapid antigen self-tests is the BinaxNOW test from Abbott, which can be used on individuals as young as two years old. The BinaxNOW test offers results in 15 minutes.

Other rapid antigen self-tests include Ellume, QuickVue, InteliSwab, and Flowflex. 

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen elsewhere during the pandemic, there are individuals and companies looking to profit from COVID-19 who are offering counterfeit or unauthorized self-tests.

For that reason, it’s best to get your COVID-19 self-tests from a trusted retailer or local organization, not from less regulated sources like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.

When purchasing a rapid antigen self-test, it’s important to make sure that the test has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA website features a searchable list of approved rapid antigen tests on its website.

When should I take a COVID-19 self-test?

Because there’s a cost associated with these tests, it can be a financial burden to take a self-test regularly.

Instead, consider taking a self-test before spending time with at-risk individuals or, as the CDC recommends, before attending an indoor gathering with individuals who aren’t members of your household.

If possible, you may want to take a self-test after those gatherings as well for additional peace of mind.

Additionally, self-testing is recommended after traveling or after a potential exposure to an individual infected with COVID-19 - even if you’re fully vaccinated.

What should I do if my self-test is positive?

Individuals who get a positive result from a self-test should assume that they are currently infected with COVID-19 and act accordingly.

The CDC's latest guidance (Dec. 27, 2021) recommends that individuals who test positive isolate for five days and  wear a mask around others for an additional five days; if you have a fever, stay home until the fever resolves.

It's not necessary to confirm a rapid test result with a PCR test, but you can also consider taking another self-test to confirm the result.

If your kit came with multiple tests you can use another one of those, but may want to try a different brand of test to provide an even means of comparison.

What else should I know?

Keep the following tips in mind to help ensure that you get an accurate result from your self-test:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before conducting the test.
  • Carefully read all of the instructions that accompany your test - different brands may require you to take different steps.
  • Prior to taking the test, check the expiration date to ensure that the test is still valid.
  • Avoid storing your tests in extreme temperatures. The instructions accompanying your test will have further details on the ideal storage conditions.
  • Don’t reuse any parts of your test kit, and don’t open the test kit until you’re ready to administer the test.

The CDC also has a helpful video that provides additional tips, as well as an infographic on how to appropriately collect a nasal sample; the infographic is also available in Spanish.

Get the latest information on COVID-19.