Do You Need to Retest After a Positive COVID-19 Result?

The CDC provides guidelines on what to do

If you've tested positive for COVID-19 and have isolated yourself for 10 days, there is no need for retesting if you have fully recovered.

If you are unable to isolate for the entire 10 days, you may opt for retesting, although it may not be necessary if you are fever-free for 24 hours and continue to wear a face mask as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This article explains when retesting after a positive COVID test may be appropriate and why the CDC does not recommend repeat testing for those who have recovered. It also explains how long you are contagious after testing positive for COVID, how long you can continue to remain positive, and when it may be reasonable to stop isolation if you are symptom-free.

Woman taking at-home Covid test

AzmanL / Getty Images

What Do I Do If I Test Positive for COVID?

The current CDC guidelines state that if a person tests positive for COVID, they need to isolate themselves at home for at least five days and take precautions for at least 10 days—regardless of vaccination status.

After five days, a person who does not have COVID symptoms can end isolation if they can still wear a well-fitting mask around other people for five more days.

People with mild symptoms should isolate for five days, starting when the symptoms came on. This helps ensure that their symptoms are improving and they are fever-free for 24 hours before they end isolation.

Even if their symptoms have improved on day five, they should continue wearing a well-fitting mask around other people for another five days.

Do I Need to Test After I Have COVID?

At the end of five days, if a person has access to a COVID test and wants to test, they can. However, they do not need to test, and the test result will not change whether they still need to wear a mask around others for five more days.

The CDC recommends that you only test if you have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and your other symptoms have gotten better.

  • If the test result is negative, you can end isolation after day five and wear a mask around others until day 10.
  • If the test result is positive, continue to isolate until day 10.

No further testing is recommended—even if you tested positive on day five. Repeat testing after recovery from COVID is not required after 10 days of isolation.

What If I'm Immunocompromised or Very Sick?

The CDC's guidelines do not apply to moderately or severely ill people with COVID-19 or people with weakened immune systems.

Immunocompromised people should always isolate for at least 10 days. People who are severely sick may need to isolate for up to 20 days.

If a person does not have access to repeat COVID testing after five days in isolation or does not want to retest, the CDC recommends they take precautions until day 10.

At-Home COVID Testing

If you have mild to moderate symptoms, you might do COVID testing and take care of yourself at home. The free at-home rapid COVID testing kits from the government have been discontinued but you can still buy at-home COVID testing kits.

How Long Will I Test Positive After Having COVID?

People might do repeat COVID testing because they think that getting another positive test result means that they are still contagious, even if they're feeling better.

However, many people continue to test positive for COVID even though they are not symptomatic or contagious. They may keep testing positive for COVID weeks or even months after they were sick.

Research has shown that with PCR tests, viral particles can be detected in most people as early as six days before COVID symptoms start and continue to show up until two weeks later.

While viral RNA can still be detected on a test, scientists have not been able to grow the live virus from collected specimens nine days after symptoms started.

That means that even though a person can continue to test positive for COVID, they are no longer contagious eight days after they started having symptoms.

How Can Someone Test Positive for COVID and Not Be Infectious?

The best COVID-19 tests are the nucleic acid reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests. These tests make copies of viral genetic material in respiratory samples. The tests can take a single copy of viral RNA and amplify it to show a positive result.

These tests are very good at detecting small amounts of viral material. However, the viral fragments do not indicate a live virus is present.

Just because the material is detected does not mean that the viral fragments will cause symptoms or be passed to others. The viral fragments can be detected for up to three months.

If I Keep Testing Positive for COVID Will I Become Contagious Again?

Repeat COVID infection makes the question of retesting a little more complicated.

People who have recovered from COVID get protective antibodies that help prevent the virus from replicating and infecting new cells. However, scientists do not fully understand the effectiveness of antibody protection or how long it lasts.

Some studies have suggested that neutralizing antibodies are present for at least six months, which means the risk of reinfection is low but not impossible.

Research has also shown that COVID reinfection is more likely in unvaccinated people. However, breakthrough COVID infections can also happen to fully vaccinated people. 

Should I Retest If I've Recovered From COVID But Have Symptoms Again?

According to the CDC guidelines, testing is not recommended as part of a contact tracing program or new exposures within three months of a positive COVID test. During that time, a positive test result could be from the previous infection rather than a new infection.

However, the recommendation is different if a person experiences symptoms of COVID within that three months. In that case, repeat testing is recommended.

If the test is positive, a person should restart the five-day isolation period and follow the recommended guidelines.

Can My Employer Require a Negative COVID Test Before I Can Return to Work?

Several workplaces have implemented COVID screening to help prevent the spread of the virus. The CDC advises employers on how to use testing strategies in non-healthcare settings.

However, the CDC does not recommend requiring a negative COVID test result before allowing employees to return to work.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers who put mandatory COVID testing of employees in place must make sure that the testing is job-related and consistent with a business necessity. The purpose of the program should be to identify current infections.

What Does the CDC Recommend Employers Do About COVID Testing?

Based on the evidence of continued positive results for months after illness, the CDC recommends a time-based and symptom-based strategy for determining when an employee can return to work.

This strategy means that people should follow the CDC guidelines for five days of isolation and should not go back to work until symptoms improve or resolve.

According to the ADA, employers can require a healthcare provider’s note certifying fitness for duty after a COVID infection. However, health organizations have stressed that the requirement could be burdensome because many providers are too busy to provide fitness for duty documentation.

The CDC recommends that employers consider not requiring a provider’s note for employees to return to work. However, some employers do.

CDC Guidelines for Employers

Employers who have put regular COVID screenings in place will likely require repeat testing when employees come back to work. However, the ADA requires that employers follow current CDC guidelines for repeat testing and returning to work.

If I Continue to Test Positive for COVID, Does That Mean I Have Long COVID?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a clinical definition for post-COVID syndrome—also known as long COVID. The chronic condition has been seen in people:

  • With a history of probable or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection 
  • Who continue to have symptoms three months after the onset of initial symptoms or test positive for COVID
  • Who have symptoms lasting for at least two months 
  • Whose symptoms cannot be explained by another diagnosis 

The symptoms long COVID are being added to an ever-growing list, but some of the most commonly reported symptoms are:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Cognitive dysfunction or difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep problems
  • Mood changes
  • Changes in smell or taste
  • Changes in a person's menstrual cycle

Post-COVID-19 conditions like long COVID are clinical diagnoses. That means we do not have a specific test for them yet.

We do know that long COVID is not more common in people who continue to test positive for the virus.

A lot of what we know about long COVID came from the CDC when they looked at a small group of people to try to understand long COVID risk factors.

We're still learning about long COVID, including what makes a person more likely to get it. That said, there are a few factors that might make long COVID more likely:

  • People hospitalized for the illness
  • Females
  • Black people
  • People aged 40 and older
  • People with preexisting health conditions

Summary

The CDC does not recommend repeat COVID-19 testing for people who have recovered from the illness. Many people continue to test positive for months and are not contagious.

The CDC only says that people with mild illness can repeat the test to end isolation early on day five. However, people still need to wear a well-fitting mask until day 10.

The CDC does not recommend repeat testing for returning to work. Instead, workplaces should follow the CDC guidelines and use a time-based and symptom-based strategy for letting employees come back to work.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it possible to be infected with 2 different COVID-19 variants at the same time?

    It's not common, but there have been case reports of people who have been diagnosed with two COVID variants at the same time.

  • Do I need to retest a positive COVID test for travel?

    You'll need to check the testing requirements for your destination. You may need to show a negative COVID test to enter a country or come back to the country you traveled from. If you test positive for COVID while you are traveling, you will need to follow the guidelines for isolation, testing, and treatment where you are.

16 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 Christine Zink, MD
Dr. Christine Zink, MD, is a board-certified emergency medicine with expertise in the wilderness and global medicine. She completed her medical training at Weill Cornell Medical College and residency in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She utilizes 15-years of clinical experience in her medical writing.