COVID-19 Tests: Everything You Need to Know

June 4, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Thomas Bader, M.D. contributes to topics such as Medical Quality.

As states begin their reopening efforts, COVID-19 testing will become more and more common as people look to move into a new normal amid a pandemic. There are a number of tests that are now available at various places, from your doctor’s office to major retailers. It’s really confusing to understand if you should get tested, and what test you should get. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

What types of COVID-19 tests are available?

The two kinds of tests available for COVID-19 are polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and antibody tests.

  • A PCR test (also known as a viral test) uses a swab of the nose or throat to see if someone has an active COVID-19 infection.
  • An antibody test is a blood test to see if you had the virus at some point in the past, and have recovered by building up antibodies to fight the infection. Depending on the type of antibody test you’re getting, it will either be taken by blood draw or finger prick.

When to get a COVID-19 PCR test:

If you want to know if you currently have a COVID-19 infection, a PCR test would be used. Here’s who should get one*:

  • People with symptoms of COVID-19. Symptoms include:
    • Fever
    • Dry cough
    • Shortness of breath
    • Fatigue
    • Muscle or body aches
    • Sore throat
    • Congestion or runny nose
    • New loss of taste or smell
    • Nausea / vomiting
    • Diarrhea
  • People who are being admitted to the hospital for a medical procedure or surgery. Knowing if someone has a current COVID-19 infection helps health care providers plan accordingly, reducing the spread of the virus amongst patients and hospital staff.
  • People with unique situations may be advised by their doctors to be tested. For example, if you have to return to work or other settings that may not allow for proper social distancing, your doctor may advise you get tested for the virus first, before entering an environment where transmission could occur.

*Everyone is different. Always speak to your health care provider first to determine if it makes sense for you to get tested.

When to get a COVID-19 antibody test:

Antibody testing (also referred to as serological testing) is a blood test that can detect if you were previously infected with COVID-19. The presence of specific antibodies suggests that you have been exposed and your body developed the blood proteins needed to fight the infection. You may want to consider an antibody test if:

  • You want to know if you’ve had COVID-19.
  • Your doctor has directed you to get an antibody test.
  • You want to help COVID-19 patients by donating plasma for convalescent plasma therapy.

You should know that there are several pros and cons to antibody testing and you should always talk to your doctor about what tests may be right for you.

What to do when you get your results:

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.