Exposed to COVID? Here’s When to Get Tested

December 3, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Cristina Cicogna, M.D. contributes to topics such as Infectious Disease.

After learning that you’ve been exposed to the COVID-19, your initial reaction may be to rush out to get a test. Instead of dropping everything to get a same-day test, experts recommend waiting a bit before getting tested, because the virus may not be detectable in your system in the early stages. This corresponds to the incubation phase of the infection when the virus starts to replicate but remains undetectable. The average duration of incubation is from 5 to 7 days but can be as long as 14 days.

If you have COVID-19 but get tested too soon, your test result could come back negative, even though you have been infected. Getting a repeat test a few days later would show the active infection, but many people don’t consider getting a follow-up test, especially if they don’t have COVID-19 symptoms.

A negative early test may give you a false sense of security as you would start shedding the virus later on.

What to do after COVID-19 exposure

After coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, you should either:

  • self-quarantine at home for five days, then get tested
  • self-quarantine at home for at least 10 days, if you don’t want to get tested and remain symptom-free

People may spread COVID-19 as soon as two to three days before developing symptoms which occur on average 5 to 7 days after exposure, with some cases lasting as long as 14 days. If you live with or care for people who are at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, consider self-quarantining for the full 14 days.

Self-quarantining after exposure should help to limit the spread of the virus in your home and community, even if you feel fine.

How to get tested after COVID-19 exposure

If you don’t have COVID-19 symptoms but are getting tested because you’ve been exposed to someone who tested positive, you’ll get a more accurate result if you get a PCR test instead of a rapid antigen test. However, it can take a few days to get your PCR test results.

After a possible COVID-19 exposure:

  • wait until five days after you’ve been exposed to get tested
  • call ahead for an appointment and show up at the scheduled time
  • wear your mask when you go to and from the appointment
  • self-quarantine at home until you get a negative test result
  • if you get a positive test result, self-isolate at home for 10 days after getting your result
    • do not go out until you experience 24 hours with no fever (without the use of fever-reducing medications) and your other symptoms of COVID-19 improve

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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.