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 continue to test positive even after you're feeling better. Some people who recover from COVID may test positive for weeks or even months after they were sick.
  • Getting a positive test result soon again after you had COVID could mean your body is still fighting off the virus, there's some leftover RNA from the virus, or you've caught the virus again. You won't be able to know for sure whether you're still contagious, so taking precautions to protect others is important.
  • How long you keep getting a positive COVID test result can also depend on which test you took. For example, a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is more sensitive than the rapid antigen tests you can do at home.

You tested positive for COVID-19. You isolated yourself for five days. But you're still testing positive. What now?

How long you test positive for COVID depends on several factors, experts say, and it's not always synonymous with how long you're contagious. The biggest determining factor is whether you use a rapid test or a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

Either test will give you a positive or negative result, but they differ in how likely they are to correctly show that you really have COVID. This is called a test's sensitivity. A test with high sensitivity is less likely to produce a false negative result.

"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."

  • PCR tests are more sensitive and can detect the presence of the virus earlier, but they can also keep picking it up well past the point when you're contagious. Alan Wells, MD, DMSc, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical Laboratories, told Verywell that after people have recovered from symptoms, providers "could occasionally detect very low levels of RNA, which was the target of the [PCR] test, for up to 12 weeks."
  • Rapid tests are less sensitive than PCRs, but you can still test positive for up to a week after you stop having symptoms.

Why You're Still Testing Positive for COVID

People who have weak immune systems may take longer to clear the virus from their bodies, which could lead to a lingering positive test.

It's important to know that getting vaccinated will not make you test positive. PCR tests and rapid tests look to see if you have an active COVID infection.

Are You Still Contagious If You're Testing Positive?

A positive PCR test does not always mean you're still capable of spreading the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people are not going to continue to spread COVID after about day 10.

Gigi Gronvall, PhD, senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Verywell that since the viral RNA can hang around, the CDC recommends people do not get PCR tests for 90 days after they got a positive result (if they need to test, they can use rapid tests instead).

"Some people continue to test positive by PCR even after they’re clearly no longer infectious," Gronvall said. "For whatever reason, there is still viral genetic material hanging out in their nose."

The problem is you can't know for sure why you're still testing positive for COVID. That means you can't know for sure that you're not still capable of infecting others. Taking precautions until you test negative is important, especially if you're around people who are at high risk.

When to Retest

If you have gotten a positive result on a test, you don't need to keep testing unless you want to stop taking precautions earlier than the recommended 10-day period. In that case, the CDC wants you to have two negative antigen tests in a row, 48 hours apart, before you can ditch the mask.

If you test negative after you have been exposed to someone with the virus or if you have symptoms, you may need to test again in a day or so. It can take time for the virus to build up to levels that the rapid tests can pick up.

"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.

You also may need to retest with a rapid test before certain activities, like traveling, if you had COVID within the past couple of months. Check the requirements of the places you'll be visiting to make sure you know what they need.

While it's a bit less likely to be the case, think about whether it's possible that you may have caught COVID again. A positive test could be a sign of a new infection, not leftovers from your old one.

Remember that it's possible to catch COVID even if you've been vaccinated and boosted. If you've been exposed to someone with COVID and/or you have symptoms, get tested.

What This Means For You

You may keep testing positive for some time after you've had COVID. While you may test positive even when you're not longer able to spread the virus, you can't know for sure. It's important to keep taking precautions until you're testing negative.

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.

6 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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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.