PCR vs. Rapid Test for COVID-19: Pros and Cons

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More than 650 million COVID-19 tests have been done in the United States since early 2020, and nearly 50 million of those tests identified the COVID-19 virus responsible for a global pandemic.

Testing rates decreased for a time once vaccines became available and the numbers of new cases started to decline. However, new variants and a desire to return to a semblance of normal life have increased the demand for tests again.

There are more options for testing now than there were at the start of the pandemic. Lab testing is still available, but new types of at-home tests have made testing easier. Not every test is created equal, though, and there are pros and cons to each type of COVID-19 test.

This article will review the different COVID-19 tests and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

PCR Test

Polymer chain reaction (PCR) tests are typically performed in a laboratory or healthcare setting. Using a swab, you or a technician will collect a sample of cells from your nose, mouth, or throat.

After collection, the samples are treated with an enzyme solution and examined under extreme amplification (copied multiple times). The technique allows test centers to identify the exact genetic materials in the sample, including the identity of a specific virus. The test can also differentiate between different variants—or strains—of a virus.

Since the tests examine microscopic bits of a virus's genetic material, they are highly reliable—often close to 100%. The downfall to the process is the time that it takes and the fact that lab analysis is required to get results.

PCR tests can be performed quickly when there is an urgent need, but they take at least a few hours to produce results. If you are not close to the lab that is doing your test, it can add extra time. Increased demand and the number of tests a particular lab is responsible for can also delay your results. The hours that the test takes to complete can turn into days when distance and demand are factored in.

In mid-2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began approving at-home PCR test kits that allow you to collect a sample at home and then send it to a lab for testing.

PCR COVID-19 Testing

  • The first step in taking a PCR test is to schedule an appointment with a testing center or order a kit online.
  • When you get the kit or arrive at your testing center, you or a technician will insert a testing swab into your nose. If you are doing the swabbing, you will be instructed how far to insert the swab into your nose and how many swipes to take inside each side of your nose. Usually, you will swab each nostril with the same swab for the best results.
  • When the test is done, you will go home or send in your test kit and wait for the results. How long it takes will depend on the lab or service that you use and the demand in your area.
  • It typically takes several days to receive results from a PCR test—or several hours at minimum.

There are also a few options for nucleic acid amplification tests that can be used at outpatient clinics and can provide a result in about 20 minutes. These tests look for nucleic acid from the virus instead of antigen.

Pros and Cons of PCR Tests

Pros
  • Highly accurate

    Can detect virus in asymptomatic people

    Can be done at home

Cons
  • Can be too sensitive (e.g., showing a positive result long after you are contagious)

    More expensive

    Takes more time

    Home tests must be sent to a lab for results

Rapid Test

Rapid antigen testing looks for pieces of the viral proteins from the SARS-CoV-2 virus (antigens) that causes COVID-19 rather than genetic material (nucleic acid from the virus). These tests are quick and are often used to detect other viruses that cause illnesses like the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

The FDA has approved several rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 because they offer a more simple and accessible option for testing. They can also produce results in under an hour.

Rapid Antigen COVID Testing

  • The first step in getting a rapid antigen test is to order your test kit online or pick it up from a store or healthcare office.
  • When you open the kit, read the instructions carefully. Each manufacturer may have different instructions to follow.
  • In most cases, the kit will include a liquid, a swab, and a container or holder to put the swab in while you wait for the test results.
  • For the next step, you will usually be instructed to wet the testing area with a liquid that comes with the kit.
  • You will then use the enclosed swab to collect your sample. This typically involves circling the swab several times in each of your nostrils.
  • Once you are done swabbing, you will place the swab onto or into the test kit as instructed. The swab will begin producing a result when it reacts with the testing surface and liquid.
  • While you may see results almost immediately in the form of a colored line or another sign, wait until the instructed time to confirm your results. Many tests state results are reliable in 15–30 minutes.

Antigen tests are not as sensitive as PCR-based or other nucleic acid amplification tests.

PCR tests can detect the COVID-19 virus nearly 100% of the time. Antigen tests can only detect the virus in about 80% of people with COVID-19 symptoms and less than half of the people who take the test when they have no symptoms.

Pros and Cons of Rapid Antigen Tests

Pros
  • Can be done entirely at home

    Results in less than an hour

    Costs less than a PCR test

    Good for repeated or serial testing

    Helpful to differentiate cold/flu symptoms from COVID-19

Cons
  • Less accurate than PCR

    Does not work as well if you have no symptoms

    Accuracy depends on the quality of the sample you collect

    User error can affect results

Which Test Should You Use?

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to which COVID-19 test is best. There is a time and place for each type, and which one you choose will depend on your situation and symptoms.

For example, if you are sick and wondering whether your symptoms could be caused by COVID-19, a rapid test can give you that answer quickly. That's helpful because it would allow you to isolate yourself from other people to help reduce the spread of the virus.

However, if you do not have symptoms or you're simply taking a test before an event to make sure that you're not sick, a rapid antigen test may not be able to give you the most accurate result.

People who are symptomatic who need testing before a medical procedure, people who are testing because they were exposed to someone with COVID-19, or people who remain sick despite numerous negative rapid tests are the best candidates for PCR testing. While this type of testing takes longer and is more expensive than rapid tests, it can provide you with the most accurate result.

Summary

Both PCR and rapid antigen tests offer reliable options for testing if you have symptoms that could be from COVID-19. Rapid antigen tests can be more effective if you need to do repeated (serial) testing.

A Word From Verywell

The COVID-19 test that you choose will depend on how you are feeling, why you are taking a test, and how vulnerable the people around you are to getting sick. If you need immediate results, a rapid antigen test might be the best option. However, if you need the most accurate test, or you are still sick and want to validate your rapid test result, PCR is the better choice.

If you have questions about COVID-19 testing, symptoms, or treatment, talk to your doctor or another trusted healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I take a COVID-19 test at home?

    You can collect samples for both PCR and rapid antigen tests at home, but you can only get immediate results with a rapid antigen test. A PCR test must be sent to a lab where special equipment is used to analyze your sample.

  • Is one type of COVID-19 test better than the other?

    PCR tests are generally considered more accurate than rapid tests, but rapid tests have benefits that PCR tests do not have—for example, they provide results faster and for a lower cost. The test that is right for you will depend on why you are taking the test and how soon you need to get results.

  • How are PCR and antigen tests different?

    Both PCR and antigen testing use samples of cells collected from your nose, mouth, or throat. After collection, PCR testing requires special equipment in a lab to get a result while antigen testing can produce results with limited materials in less than an hour. PCR sample collections can be done at home but have to be sent to a lab for results. Rapid antigen tests can be done completely at home.

  • Which test will give me quicker results?

    It's possible to get PCR test results in a few hours if you have direct access to a lab and there is no one else waiting. However, as this scenario is unlikely, a rapid antigen test will almost always provide faster results. That said, the PCR test will still produce more accurate results.

  • What do I do if my test is positive?

    If you get a positive COVID-19 test result—no matter which test you use—you should stay home and isolate. Generally, you are contagious for about 10 days after you are infected with the virus. Call your healthcare provider if you have questions about testing, quarantine, or treatment.

  • How can I help prevent the spread of COVID-19?

    You can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by getting tested if you have symptoms, staying home if you are sick, isolating yourself from others as you quarantine, practicing frequent handwashing, and wearing a face mask.

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8 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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