When should you use your home COVID tests

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(NEW YORK) – Millions of Americans have purchased rapid COVID-19 tests online or at local stores and signed up to receive test kits through a free government program.

Unlike conventional lab-processed PCR tests, which can detect infection earlier in the course of illness but can take days to get a result, rapid home tests can tell you if you’re likely infectious in less than 15 minutes. Many specialists see them as a crucial tool in the ramp out of the pandemic — assuming Americans know how and when to use them.

Public health experts say rapid tests are good for a range of scenarios, including post-symptom testing and reducing the risk of passing the virus on to others, including children who are not yet eligible. vaccination or those at higher risk of severe disease.

“In the past two months alone, I have used home testing for the three main indications: exhibiting symptoms of COVID, after known exposure to COVID, and before gathering indoors with high-risk people” , said Dr. Alok Patel, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University.

Test if you have symptoms

“At the end of the day, if you notice something has changed and you have unusual symptoms, that’s a good reason to get tested,” said Dr Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health in Weymouth. , Massachusetts.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, congestion, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. Several symptoms of COVID-19 overlap with the common cold or flu and the only way to really know the difference is to get tested. So if you have symptoms, stay home and be sure to get tested.

Test to protect others

Even if you don’t have symptoms, testing is useful after possible or known exposures, before indoor or large gatherings, before travel, or when you see high-risk or immunocompromised people.

“I use tests before meeting unmasked with friends and family members who are at high risk of hospitalization if they develop COVID-19. I am especially careful with people receiving cancer treatment and loved ones living in assisted living facilities,” said Dr. Alyssa Bilinski, assistant professor of health policy at the Brown School of Public Health.

Some schools with children too young to be eligible for vaccinations require weekly rapid tests on Monday morning before the start of the week. Other schools allow vaccinated students to return after known exposure using rapid tests to ensure they remain negative in a program called “test to stay”.

Test if you have been exposed

“If you are asymptomatic but are within 6 feet of someone with COVID-like symptoms or a positive test for a combined total of 15 minutes or more in a 24-hour period, you should get tested. “, said Dr. Jay Bhatt. from the Family Christian Health Center near Chicago.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an online coronavirus self-checker that can help you decide when to test.

Immunization status should not affect testing decisions or interpretation of results. “With omicron’s higher breakthrough rates, the tests are broadly applicable to everyone, regardless of vaccination status,” said Harvard University epidemiologist Dr. John Brownstein.

Performing a test and interpreting the results

Make sure your home test is cleared by the Food and Drug Administration and follow the manufacturer’s instructions exactly, from storage to sample collection to expiration. So far, the FDA-cleared over-the-counter rapid tests use nasal swabs, but don’t require you to go very deep into the nose. Some require mixing the solution and/or placing three, four or six drops on a card, but all are designed for adults who are not health workers.

Rapid tests are very reliable if they come back positive, but if they register a negative, a confirmatory PCR test may be needed at least 24 hours later. So if you test positive, especially if symptomatic, it’s safe to assume you have COVID-19 and should self-quarantine per CDC guidelines.

In contrast, negative results may be less precise and should be interpreted with a tiered approach.

If you are symptomatic but test negative, a false negative is possible. Negative tests should also be interpreted with caution if you have had known COVID contact or possible exposure, such as travel.

In this scenario, it is essential to perform serial tests at least 24 hours apart. Follow the specific instructions for your test. Rapid test results can change quickly, so a negative test is only reliable for eight to 12 hours. If quarantining is not possible while you are mass testing, hide and distance as best you can.

You can consider a PCR test if you need more definitive results, although if you’ve had COVID-19 before, a PCR test can be positive for up to three months.

“If I have symptoms and my rapid test is negative, I will do a PCR. If I am asymptomatic and an initial rapid is negative, I will test for two more days at 24-hour intervals and continue to test myself. hide and distance myself as best I can. If I have to be with someone who is high risk or immunocompromised, I would take a PCR test before being with that person,” Bhatt said.

The Biden administration has purchased 1 billion rapid tests, and any American household can order a set of four tests for free through covidtests.gov. Tests are also available at many pharmacies and online shops. Insurance companies are required to reimburse each family member for up to eight over-the-counter rapid tests per month, but consumers must initially pay anywhere from $10 to more than $30 per test.

“While we hope to test as many people as possible, home testing cannot be prohibitively expensive,” said Dr. Simone Wildes, infectious disease specialist at South Shore Health.

While using home testing is a new skill we’re all learning, the key is to take a thoughtful, step-by-step approach based on your risk factors, exposures, symptoms, and possibility of transmission.

“Do your due diligence just like you check the weather. Before we go out, we check if we need a raincoat or an umbrella and take gear to protect ourselves from exposure,” said Dr. Darien Sutton, emergency physician and ABC News contributor.

“We should think of this virus the same way,” he added.

Nitya Rajeshuni, MD, MS, pediatric resident at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, contributes to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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