Understanding the Different COVID-19 Tests & If You Need Them

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There are many different COVID tests. Which one do you need? (Polina Tankilevitch/Pexels)

There’s a great deal of confusion regarding the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from COVID-19. From understanding the different, fluctuating stay-at-home mandates, social distancing regulations, and mask rules to the even trickier science behind the various kinds of tests, it’s extremely hard to understand it all, even for people in medical fields.

Generally speaking, no matter what state you live in you should adhere to the following basic rules:

~Wear a mask when you leave your home or are within 10 feet of another person.

~When in public – for example, when shopping at a grocery store – try to keep at least 6 feet of distance between you and strangers

~Avoid large gatherings (generally considered anything more than 10 people in a small, enclosed space).

These are broad guidelines pertaining to basic measures, but the trickiness comes into play when discussing more complex issues, like tests.

Differentiating between COVID-19 medical tests

The average person has heard a lot about when, where, and whether to get a COVID-19 test. There’s been considerable confusion regarding whether a person with symptoms needs to go to a medical clinic or if they can simply order an at home COVID 19 test. There’s also confusion regarding the difference between antibody tests for asymptomatic people and PCR antigen tests for those who are experiencing symptoms. 

COVID-19 tests generally fall into four main categories:

PCR tests

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests make up the majority of tests going on in the U.S. and are considered the most reliable. Even still, the reagent supplies needed for this are in short supply, which has created a backlog. 

The test itself identifies traces of genetic material from the virus and while there have been a fairly large number of false negatives, there are far fewer false positives, which makes a positive diagnosis a strong indicator that a patient needs to quarantine.

Saliva tests

Saliva tests that detect the coronavirus are technically considered a PCR diagnostic tool, but it is far less invasive and can be done at home by people who are not medical professionals. Because they don’t require any chemical reagents, saliva tests are more available than other tests but have been used for routine mass testing (sports teams, for example).

Antigen tests

Antigen tests work by detecting proteins that live on the virus. They differ from PCR tests, which look for the genetic material of the virus. Another difference is that antigen tests are much quicker and less labor-intensive.

Antigen tests are picking up in the U.S., despite the fact that the FDA has only approved a few of them. Many health experts believe that antigen tests aren’t as accurate as other tests but that they can help to dramatically aid in the mass testing of millions of Americans. 

Antibody tests

Antibody tests are distinct from the others on this list because they don’t actually detect traces of SARS-CoV-2 but rather the specific antibodies that the body’s immune system produces in reaction to the virus. As with other tests, antibody tests frequently have false results. Additionally, antibody tests do not actually tell you if you currently have the virus and, furthermore, they cannot stop you from getting it again.

However, scientists deem antibody tests as extremely useful in understanding the true number of people who were and are infected with the virus. Also, by understanding how the body’s immune system works in response to SARS-CoV-2, disease experts and doctors can learn about whether future vaccines will be able to help establish herd immunity (which is one of the biggest unknowns right now).

According to Dr. Aneesh Mehta, chief of infectious diseases services at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, antibody tests are a mixed bag:

“From the research perspective, there’s a lot of information we can get from antibody testing if we collect it over time. [But] just because we can detect antibodies does not necessarily mean you’re fully protected from acquiring that infection. Continue to take all the same precautions that everyone else is taking.”

Many doctors say that you don’t necessarily have to worry about getting tested unless you are showing symptoms. Such symptoms include:

  •  A fever between 100.4 degrees F and 102 degrees F
  •  Flu-like symptoms (chills, runny or stuffy nose, whole body aches, a headache, and/or feeling tired)
  •  Loss of taste or smell
  •  A cough or sore throat that worsens
  •  Shortness of breath and chest pain

If you are experiencing symptoms but they aren’t severe, you might want to schedule a virtual appointment with your doctor and inquire about at home tests you can take. If the symptoms worsen, you should definitely go to the hospital.

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