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Self-testing for COVID-19

Self-testing for COVID-19 can be done using an over-the-counter (OTC) rapid antigen test to find out if you have COVID-19 infection. An OTC test for COVID-19 can be taken anywhere, including your home, and will provide results within minutes.

The at-home test for COVID-19 allows you to see if you are COVID-19 positive or negative at the time of testing. It does not detect any previous infection or help you find out if you have immunity to COVID-19.

Self-tests for COVID-19 are another way to help stop the spread of COVID-19, along with vaccinations, wearing well-fitting face masks, hand washing, and physical distancing.

When to Self-Test

You may want to self-test for COVID-19 if:

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19
  • You came in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 or who tested positive for the virus
  • You are planning to meet with friends or family members who are at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19, such as older adults or those with underlying medical health conditions
  • You have an indoor meeting or a gathering to attend and want to test beforehand

Perform the self-test for COVID-19:

  • Right away if you have symptoms of COVID-19
  • A full 5 days after the exposure to someone with COVID-19
  • As close as possible to the time of the event or a meeting

Where to Find Self-Tests

You can buy self-tests at your local pharmacies or retail stores. Your health insurance may reimburse the cost of the at-home tests. Contact your insurer to find out more.

Beginning September 25, 2023. every household in the United States can place an order to receive four free COVID-19 rapid tests delivered directly to their home by going to www.covid.gov/tests.

You may also contact your local health department to find out if any free tests are available.

If you can't find a self-test when you need one, contact your local health department for community COVID-19 testing locations in your area.

How to Use Self-Tests

Read the instructions carefully before using the test.

You need a nasal swab specimen for the test. Follow the instructions provided with the test kit. Here are the general steps for self-testing.

  • Check the expiration date. Do not use an expired or damaged kit. Some test brands have been granted extended expiration dates by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). You can look up test brands on the FDA website to find out.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer to clean your hands thoroughly.
  • Clean the surface where you'll use the test.
  • Open the test package and remove the swab for collecting the sample. DO NOT touch the soft end of the swab.
  • Follow the instructions to collect the specimen.
  • Read your result within the recommended time. Doing so too early or too late can give an inaccurate result.
  • After reading the results, discard the test contents according to the instructions mentioned.
  • Clean your hands and the surface where you used the test.

Understanding Your Results

Taking a self-test for COVID-19 will show either a positive or a negative result.

If your test is negative, it means that the test could not detect any virus. However, you may have an infection but still test negative.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you should repeat the test after 48 hours to confirm. Contact your health care provider to see if you need to be tested for another viral illness, such as the flu. Follow precautions for how to protect yourself and others.

If you were exposed to someone with COVID-19, test yourself a full 5 days after exposure. Repeat the test 48 hours after the first test. If you are negative, repeat the test a third time after another 48 hours.

If your result is positive, it means that you have COVID-19 infection. You need to follow recommendations for self-isolation and take all precautions:

  • Inform your health care provider.
  • Isolate yourself at home for at least 5 days. If you are alone, you may inform your close contacts who can help you during the isolation period.
  • Practice physical distancing from others.
  • Wear a well-fitted mask (preferably N95 or KN95) when around others.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or use a sanitizer to reduce the risk of infecting others.
  • Get plenty of rest and eat healthy food.
  • Watch your symptoms. Maintain a record of your fever and share it with your provider.
  • Check your oxygen saturation using an oximeter, if available.
  • Inform your provider if symptoms worsen or you experience shortness of breath.
  • The test may continue to read positive for days or even weeks after an infection.

When to Call the Doctor

Contact your provider if you tested positive and:

  • Your symptoms get worse
  • Your oxygen saturation falls below 90%
  • You have an underlying medical health condition
  • You are an older adult

Having a medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, or lung disease can make your symptoms worse and require hospitalization. Being an older adult also increases your risk of severe COVID-19. Inform your provider if you think you may be at risk, and ask if you should receive antiviral treatment.

Alternative Names

COVID-19 self-test; OTC test for COVID-19; Over-the-counter test for COVID-19; Home test for COVID-19; Rapid antigen test for COVID-19; Rapid at-home test for COVID-19; Coronavirus home test; Self-testing for COVID-19

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Self testing at home or anywhere. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/testing/self-testing.html. Updated April 25, 2023. Accessed September 19, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: COVID-19 Testing: what you need to know. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/testing.html. Updated May 11, 2023. Accessed September 19, 2023.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website. How to get your at-home over-the-counter COVID-19 test for free. www.cms.gov/how-to-get-your-at-home-OTC-COVID-19-test-for-free. Updated September 6, 2023. Accessed September 19, 2023.

US Food & Drug Administration website. At-home COVID-19 diagnostic tests: frequently asked questions. www.fda.gov/medical-devices/coronavirus-COVID-19-and-medical-devices/home-COVID-19-diagnostic-tests-frequently-asked-questions. Updated July 14, 2023. Accessed September 19, 2023.

Review Date 2/22/2023

Updated by: Frank D. Brodkey, MD, FCCM, Associate Professor, Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, WI. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 09/24/2023.

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