How Long Will You Test Positive for COVID-19?

person holding positive covid antigen test

Viesturs Radovics / EyeEm / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • If you get COVID-19, you may test positive for several weeks after your infection clears.
  • The persistence of a positive result depends on which test was used, since the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is more sensitive than the rapid antigen tests that can be administered at home.
  • If you’ve tested positive, you don’t need to test again. If you know you’ve been exposed and test negative, test again in a few days.

You tested positive for COVID-19. You followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations by isolating yourself for five days and wearing a mask for another five days. But what now?

At what point do you cease to be positive for the virus that causes COVID-19? It depends on several factors, experts say, and the most important part is which test you use.

“A positive test can be short-lived or can persist for months,” Robert Amler, MD, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at the New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, told Verywell via email. “Different types of tests may or may not be persistently positive.”

There are two main types of tests COVID-19 that can be used to detect an active infection. Antigen tests, often called rapid tests, can rapidly look for the viral proteins called antigens and can be conducted at home. Molecular tests, like the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, look for pieces of the virus’s genetic material and are analyzed in a lab.

Whether you use a PCR test or a rapid test, the results are either positive or negative. They do not measure how much virus you may have in your body or how infectious you may be.

These tests, however, have different sensitivities.

What Is Sensitivity?

Sensitivity indicates how likely a test is to detect a condition when it is actually present in a patient. A test with high sensitivity is less likely to produce a false negative.

PCR tests are more sensitive, and are able to detect the presence of the virus earlier. But they can also detect the presence of COVID-19 well past the point of when it’s contagious.

"We found that after [people] recovered from any symptoms, we could occasionally detect very low levels of RNA, which was the target of the [PCR] test, for up to 12 weeks,” Alan Wells, MD, DMSc, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical Laboratories, told Verywell.

According to a CDC review of 113 studies, COVID-19 is only contagious ranging from two to three days before symptom onset to eight days after.

“That’s why the CDC recommends that people be exempted from any sort of PCR surveillance testing for 90 days after a positive test,” Gigi Gronvall, PhD, senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Verywell. Gronvall works with the center’s COVID-19 Testing Toolkit. “I expect that that this guidance is probably going to change at some point with more information, but some people continue to test positive by PCR even after they’re clearly no longer infectious. For whatever reason, there is still viral genetic material hanging out in their nose.”

Rapid tests are less sensitive, but a person will probably still test positive for six or seven days after they are no longer having symptoms, Gronvall said.

Positive? Don’t Test Again

If you have gotten a positive result on a test, there is no point in testing any further.

“Health departments say if you test positive, don’t keep testing repeatedly in search of a negative test,” Amler said. “Any positive test is a positive result, so you will just be wasting scarce test kits.”

The only time to retest is if you test negative after you have been exposed to someone with the virus or if you have symptoms. It can take time for the virus to build up to levels that are detectable.

“You want to test on day three and five or day four and day six after exposure, just to make sure you are negative,” Wells said.

What This Means For You

If you get COVID-19, you may test positive on a PCR test for several weeks after you have ceased to be infectious. With a rapid test, you may test positive for six or seven days after your symptoms have cleared.

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.

2 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.
  1. Maxim LD, Niebo R, Utell MJ. Screening tests: a review with examples. Inhal Toxicol. 2014;26(13):811–828. doi:10.3109/08958378.2014.955932

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What we know about quarantine and isolation.

By Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette has over 30 years' experience writing about health and medicine. She is the former managing editor of Drug Topics magazine.