Frequently Asked Questions about Testing

COVID-19 rapid antigen tests provide rapid results, can be taken in any location, and can be administered by a healthcare provider or yourself. Rapid antigen tests that are self-administered are also known as self-tests, “at-home tests”, or “over-the-counter” testing kits. When used correctly, these rapid antigen tests are highly reliable, easily accessible, and provide fast results. They are a critical tool in controlling the spread of COVID-19. 

If you have COVID-19 symptoms: take a rapid antigen test immediately. 

If you were exposed to someone with COVID-19: the CDC recommends testing at least five full days after exposure, even if you don’t have symptoms. If your first rapid antigen test is negative, you should schedule a PCR test or take a rapid antigen test again after 24-48 hours.

In either case, the CDC recommends repeat testing (e.g., re-testing in 24-48-hour intervals) to help ensure accurate reporting and monitoring of infection results over time. 

You can also take a rapid antigen test as a precautionary measure before visiting or gathering with others. Consider testing in advance, at least 1 to 2 days before attending an indoor event or gathering. This is especially important if you are at risk of severe illness or if you will be around others who are at high risk, such as immunocompromised people or older adults.

Updated November 9, 2023 

Rapid antigen tests are most effective when there are high levels of the virus present, such as when you are symptomatic. For this reason, they are less able to detect COVID-19 during the earliest phase of the illness, when low levels of the virus are present. This is why rapid antigen testing may require repeat or serial testing (e.g., re-testing in 24-48-hour intervals). Repeat testing reduces the chances of getting a false negative result. If you are infected with COVID-19 but tested negative early in the course of your illness, you may test positive days later when your virus levels increase. Multiple negative rapid antigen tests increase the confidence that you are not currently infected.

The specific number of times you should take a rapid antigen test depends on your result(s). Positive results from a rapid antigen test are considered highly reliable because these tests are very effective at detecting high amounts of the virus. If you receive a negative test result, the CDC recommends that you test again 48 hours after your initial test, especially if you continue to experience symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19. 

What to do if you have a positive result on a rapid antigen test:

If your rapid antigen test result is positive, this means the virus was detected, and you have an infection. Follow the latest CDC guidance on isolation. If you are at an increased risk for severe illness or have worsening symptoms over time, you should consult a healthcare provider.

What to do if you have a negative result on a rapid antigen test:

If your rapid antigen test result is negative, this means that the virus was not detected, but this doesn’t rule out an infection. You should test again 24-48 hours after your first test, especially if you are experiencing symptoms or have recently been exposed to the virus.

If you continue to receive negative rapid antigen test results, but have symptoms or are otherwise concerned that you could have COVID-19, consider visiting your healthcare provider and getting a PCR test. PCR testing is the most accurate COVID-19 test available, and your healthcare provider can test for other potential viral infections. 

Pharmacies, health centers, diagnostic labs, and health departments offer COVID-19 PCR testing and other viral tests. Check where such testing is available in your community using the U.S. Health and Human Services “Test to Treat” testing web page.

Updated November 9, 2023 

COVID-19 PCR and rapid antigen tests are often administered at clinics, pharmacies, health centers, and other community testing sites. To find PCR and rapid antigen testing options near you, including free testing options, search the U.S. Health and Human Services “Test to Treat” testing web page or visit your local health department’s website. 

Rapid antigen tests are available at many pharmacies, retailers, community sites, and online stores. If you plan on using an at-home rapid antigen test, you should have several tests readily available so that you can test more than once. Since test quantities vary by manufacturer, check how many are included in a kit to ensure you have enough tests on hand. 

For more information on FDA-authorized COVID-19 rapid antigen tests, expiration dates, and age limits, click here.

As of May 2023, private insurance companies are no longer required to fully cover at-home rapid antigen tests and lab tests. People using government-sponsored health insurance or those without insurance may also pay out-of-pocket costs related to COVID-19 testing. 

See more information about how the End of the Public Health Emergency has most recently impacted testing coverage.

Updated November 9, 2023 

There are two primary options for COVID-19 testing: PCR tests and rapid antigen tests.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Test (NAAT is an alternative name)

  • Most accurate test currently available 
  • Typically administered by health providers at a clinic or pharmacy and analyzed in a laboratory
  • Results typically in 24-72 hours

Rapid Antigen Test

  • Less accurate than PCR tests
  • Results in as little as 15 minutes
  • Can be administered by a healthcare provider at a testing site, or self-administered with an at-home testing kit (at-home test, self-test, and over-the-counter test are alternative names)

A third test, known as an antibody test, can help indicate whether you have had COVID-19 in the past. Antibody tests are used by researchers to better understand the virus, but they are not used to determine whether you currently have an infection.

Updated November 9, 2023 

Messaging Resources about Testing

Toolkit: When to Take an At-Home COVID-19 Test

Communications Tool: Building Bridges

Toolkit: COVID-19 Testing

Misinformation Alerts about Testing

Misleading video used to falsely claim COVID-19 vaccines are gene therapy

A website run by an economic forecaster is using a misleading video clip to falsely claim that a Bayer Pharmaceutical executive said that the COVID-19 vaccine is gene therapy. The clip originally began circulating in November but has resurfaced recently among vaccine opponents. In the video from last October, the executive speaks about technological innovations,

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