The omicron variant of COVID-19 is estimated to be roughly 95% of all U.S. infections. Though it spares the lungs and is less severe than other variants, omicron is quick spreading — even to people who are vaccinated and boosted.
But because it often looks like a really bad cold, it’s more important than ever to know if you’ve got COVID or are just under the weather — especially if you’re going to be around other people. To get the most accurate results, here are some of the do’s and don’ts of properly testing yourself for COVID at home.
When to use a self-administered COVID test
If you want to know if you’ve got COVID, the most accurate assessment is still a PCR test. If you are exhibiting symptoms or were significantly exposed to someone with COVID, you should go get a PCR test ASAP.
However, if you are merely taking precautions, are asymptomatic and have a low chance of actually having COVID, the at-home tests (which only test for the antigen and not the antibodies) are a good option. After all, the PCR tests are administered at clinics and pharmacies but it can be difficult not only to make time for an appointment but to schedule one as well.
It’s also wise to consider taking a self-test before attending indoor meetups with people who don’t live in your household — especially if there may be elderly people, unvaccinated children, immunocompromised folks, or people at increased risk of severe infection present. And of course, if you have symptoms of COVID or have been (possibly) exposed to someone with COVID.
Thus according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a coronavirus self-test (or home test or over-the-counter test) is often a faster alternative as part of a reasonable risk-reduction measure many of us can take. You can take these tests anywhere (as long as you can get your hands on some — it’s been difficult), whether you’re vaccinated or not, and whether you’re exhibiting symptoms or not. Plus, they’re easy to take and have quick results.
How to use an at-home COVID test (and why you might want to start throat swabbing, too)
If you already have a home test, store it according to the provided manufacturer instructions until you are going to them. (And yes, that means don’t open the packaging until you’re going to use it.)
Here are some things to consider when taking your at home test:
- Properly clean whatever surface you’re going to be doing the test on (e.g.: kitchen or bathroom counter, table, desk, etc.) right before taking the test
- Have a timer ready since some of the steps may require use of a timer
- Read the test manufacturer’s instructions
- Wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly (at least 20 seconds)
- Check for any damage or discoloration on the test after you open the packaging
- Collect your sample (either nasal or saliva depending on the type of test)
- Complete the rest of the test following the instructions in order
- Read test results within the time frame indicated in the instructions
Keep in mind that if you fail to properly follow the instructions or read the results within the appropriate time frame, you may invalidate your at-home test or cause an error message. If that happens, call the manufacturer or re-administer another test.
After you’ve taken your over-the-counter COVID test, throw them away. Clean any surface you think your sample may have touched, wash your hands, and please, for the love of Pete, do NOT reuse the test or any of its materials.
One additional note: It has been suggested to take a throat swab in addition to a nasal swab. You can do so with a standard test kit by opening your mouth wide and shoving that swab to the back of your mouth behind the arch — yes, it’s gross — and then you can also swab your nasal cavity with that same swab. (Yes, there is a squick factor, but there is evidence this is more accurate.)
According to epidemiologist Michael Mina, the throat and nasal swab combination can improve chances of picking up the virus. While the at-home tests in the U.S. are not FDA approved for testing throat swabs as well, it’s still a precaution that may be worth it.
Symptoms are starting v early w Omicron (for a number of reasons I’ve discussed)
This means that there is a chance the virus isnt yet growing in the nose when you first test
Virus may start further down. Throat swab + nasal may improve chances a swab picks up virus. https://t.co/NfxHqjKpIo
— Michael Mina (@michaelmina_lab) December 27, 2021
Check out this video for proper throat swabbing technique:
Regardless of whether you do a throat or a nasal swab, it’s advised to not eat, drink, or use toothpaste for at least 30 minutes prior to taking the test. Why? Because it could potentially cause a false positive — and no one has time for that!
What to do if your results are positive?
If your test results are positive for COVID-19, immediately quarantine yourself for 10 days and inform your medical professional — as well as anyone you may have come into contact recently.
No, seriously. This is very important.
Having COVID is not a moral commentary — no matter how people may treat you — but whether or not you tell people you’ve been around is.
Tell people you’ve been in contact with recently. It’s the decent thing to do, and it also helps prevent further spread and allows other people to make the best health choices for themselves and their families.
Also, avoid indoor gatherings and if you live with others, wear a mask while inside and try to isolate yourself as much as possible.
If your results are negative, but you are experiencing COVID symptoms, please take the time to get a PCR test. False negatives can absolutely happen due to the tests malfunctioning, improper test administration, user error, or — you know — life. Go get that PCR test. Please.
If your results are negative and you’re not experiencing any symptoms, you might not be in the all-clear yet. (Sorry.) To reduce the risk of you being infected but asymptomatic (and subsequently spreading it around like Typhoid Mary) and to improve self-testing reliability, do two or more tests over several days before any event you want to attend. Make sure there is at least a 24-hour gap between the tests, and take the last test as close to the event as possible.