How Accurate Are At-Home COVID Tests?

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There are dozens of home tests that can tell if you have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, but it’s difficult to know which test will give you the most accurate results.

The first completely at-home, over-the-counter (OTC) rapid test for COVID was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in December 2020. A year later, more than 60 home tests have been granted approval by the FDA.

Each test boasts quick and accurate results, but they have different levels of reliability. This article will discuss the at-home COVID tests that are available and explain what you should know about the accuracy of the results.

Types of At-Home COVID Tests

Home testing for the SARS-CoV-2 virus first became available shortly after the COVID pandemic started in early 2020. Initial testing was plagued by accuracy and distribution problems, but several months into the pandemic, new types of tests became available.

Polymer chain reaction (PCR) tests quickly became the gold standard, and better testing kits made it possible for laboratories to deliver results in a few hours instead of the several days that it took earlier in the pandemic.

By May 2020, the FDA began approving PCR testing kits for at-home use. These kits used samples that people collected at home then sent off to a laboratory for analysis.

In late 2020, the rapid antigen test for COVID appeared and could provide results in minutes. The tests have also been used in the past to detect influenza (the flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Both tests can detect infection with the virus that causes COVID, but the sensitivity levels of each vary.

PCR vs. Rapid Tests

For both PCR and rapid antigen tests, you collect a sample taken from your nose or mouth with a swab or collect a sample of your saliva in a tube. The next part of the test process is where the two types have key differences.

  • PCR testing is done in a laboratory using an enzyme solution and extreme magnification. Specialized machines amplify and analyze the sample, detecting genetic information from the virus. The specimens for PCR tests can be collected at home, but they must be sent to a lab for analysis.
  • Rapid antigen testing can be done completely at home using a swab that is exposed to a solution that detects the presence of a protein part of the virus called an antigen.

At-Home Test Options

While specimens for both PCR and rapid antigen tests can be collected at home, only antigen tests can give immediate results without the need to send the sample to a lab for testing.

The reason you need to send your specimen to a lab for a PCR test is that it requires specialized equipment to break down and analyze the molecular structure in the test sample. Antigen tests, on the other hand, typically use just a swab, a testing solution, and a card or container to hold the swab in the solution while you wait for results.

As of November 2021, several PCR home collection test kits had been approved by the FDA, including:

PCR home tests generally cost over $100, but some insurance companies may cover part or all of the cost. It will take several days for you to get the results of a PCR test.


As of November 2021, several antigen test kits had been approved by the FDA for at-home use, including:

Rapid antigen home tests usually cost between $15 and $25. However, ongoing supply and demand problems in certain areas may cause the price to increase.

How Accurate Are At-Home Tests?

At-home COVID tests can be very accurate, but their accuracy depends on several factors.

The Accuracy of At-Home COVID Tests

Verywell / Joules Garcia

PCR Testing

PCR testing is recognized as the most accurate type of testing, but it’s not perfect. Sometimes, a person who is sick will continue to test positive even when they are no longer capable of spreading the virus.

Even though these tests are very good at detecting genetic material from a virus, COVID only has an infectious period of about nine days. However, the virus can be shed for much longer.

Rapid Antigen Testing

Rapid antigen tests look for a specific antigen from the COVID virus. Rapid tests are accurate, though not as accurate as a PCR test and they can still produce errors.

For example, if people test too soon after exposure or do not have symptoms when they test, they might get a negative result even though they are sick and capable of spreading the virus.

The Right Test for You

Accuracy is not the only consideration when you’re choosing which COVID test to take. PCR testing takes longer but is more accurate. Generally, rapid antigen tests are the better choice if you need results right away.

PCR testing is preferred to confirm or diagnose infection, but these tests can show positive results for a long time—even after an isolation period would end. If you are trying to decide whether or not to isolate, it can take much longer to get results from a PCR test than a rapid test.

If you get a negative rapid test but you have symptoms of COVID, you should isolate and get a PCR test.

When to Test

If you have symptoms of COVID, an at-home test is one way to get quick and relatively reliable results. Once symptoms have appeared, the amount of virus in your body (viral load) is high, which means the antigens are more likely to be picked up by a test.

COVID symptoms usually appear two to 14 days into infection. You might consider an at-home COVID test if you have:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

An antigen test will likely provide accurate results if you have symptoms and take a rapid at-home test. Where an antigen test is lacking is in testing asymptomatic people, including people who are testing because they were exposed to someone who was sick.

PCR testing is the more accurate of the two tests in people with no symptoms, but it’s still possible to test too early with a PCR test.

If you need to confirm a positive result from a rapid test or check the results of a negative rapid test, a PCR test is helpful. If you tested negative on a rapid home test but still have COVID symptoms, it’s a good idea to have a PCR test done as well.

When to Seek Emergency Medical Care

If you have severe symptoms, whether they’re from COVID or not, getting a test is not the priority. You need to seek emergency medical care if you have symptoms such as:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in your chest
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake up or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds (depending on skin tone)

What to Do With Your Test Results

Your results might have different implications depending on several factors that are unique to you and your situation, including:

  • The type of test you took
  • When you took the test
  • The reason you took the test
  • Whether you are having any symptoms

Negative Test Result

  • If the results of your COVID test were negative and you had symptoms at the time of the test, chances are the result is accurate and your symptoms were caused by another infection or virus. However, if your symptoms continue, you may want to do another test to confirm your result. You should also continue to isolate while you are sick.
  • If the results were negative and you have no symptoms, your result is likely negative. However, if your exposure to COVID was recent, you may want to repeat the test to be sure.
  • If you were exposed to someone with COVID, you are not vaccinated, you are asymptomatic, and your test result was negative, you need to quarantine for 14 days. Your test may have been done too early to provide accurate results.
  • If you are not confident that your results were accurate and you used an at-home rapid antigen test, you may want to take a PCR test to confirm or check the results.

Positive Test Result

  • If your COVID test is positive, you need to isolate yourself to avoid spreading the virus to others.
  • You should also notify your close contacts of your positive test result.
  • Make sure to call your doctor to discuss your diagnosis or treatment.

Summary

Hundreds of tests have been approved in the last year to help detect and diagnose cases of COVID-19. While increased testing has helped control the spread of the virus, the accuracy of testing varies. There are many accurate tests for COVID that you can do at home, but variables like when you take the test and how you collect the sample can affect your results.

A Word From Verywell

If you think that you could have COVID or you have been in contact with someone who does, it’s a good idea to get tested to avoid spreading the virus to others. There are many testing options available, many of which you can do at home.

If you are not having symptoms but have been exposed to someone with COVID, PCR testing is the most effective at detecting the virus. Rapid tests are less accurate but will give you results more quickly.

In some cases, doing a second test is useful to confirm your initial result. If the first test was negative, you can confirm it with either a rapid test or a PCR test.

If you have symptoms, both tests can provide accurate results; however, the rapid antigen test can deliver results faster and for a lower cost.

Regardless of the test that you choose, limit your contact with others if you are sick, and do not put off getting medical care if needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is one type of test more accurate than another?

    PCR tests are generally considered the most accurate type of test. Rapid tests are less accurate than PCR tests, especially if you test with them when you do not have symptoms.

  • Can I do a PCR test at home?

    Most PCR testing is done in a lab or healthcare facility, but you can also use the kits at home. Some manufacturers or labs offer kits that let you collect a sample at home for PCR testing, but you still need to send your sample to the lab for analysis before you will get the results.

  • Will a rapid test work if I do not have any COVID symptoms?

    How well a rapid test works depends on various factors. For example, you might take the test when you do not have any noticeable COVID symptoms. While you may not feel symptomatic when you take a rapid test, your immune system could be hard at work keeping symptoms from developing. Rapid tests generally are not as accurate when you have no symptoms, but they can still detect COVID in about half of all cases.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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