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The Different Types of COVID-19 Tests

March 23, 2021

If you need to be tested for COVID-19, it’s important to know which tests are most commonly used, when they’re used, and how. Learning this information can help you stay well-informed.

Viral tests

Viral COVID-19 tests use nasal and oral swabs to detect and diagnose current COVID-19 infections. If you begin to experience symptoms, this test can help confirm a COVID-19 infection. There are two types of viral tests:

  • Molecular — Molecular tests can detect the genetic material of the virus. Also called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests or nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs), these tests can detect even low levels of a viral genetic material, making them highly accurate. Since most molecular tests need to be sent to a lab for analysis, results may take days to come back.
  • Antigen — Antigen tests can detect specific proteins from the virus particle. These tests may be referred to as rapid COVID-19 tests because they can usually produce results much quicker — within 10 to 15 minutes — however they have a higher chance of missing an active infection. If you are experiencing symptoms and an antigen test comes back negative, a doctor may order a molecular test to double check your results.

Alternative testing options

Over the past year, advancements in COVID-19 testing have increased overall accessibility and testing capacity. Different types of viral COVID-19 tests include:

  • At-home — At-home tests are a safe and convenient testing option, especially for individuals who are at a higher risk for COVID-19 infection. If you’re experiencing symptoms or if your doctor recommends a test, use our COVID-19 Test Site Finder to search your ZIP code and find at-home testing options provided by nearby labs. You will collect your own sample and send it back to the lab for analysis. It’s important to follow manufacturer instructions so you receive the most accurate results possible. When you receive your results, share them with your doctor so they can suggest an appropriate care plan.
  • Combination — If you are experiencing symptoms common to COVID-19 and the flu, this test can help your doctor provide a diagnosis and suggest an appropriate care plan. With a combination test, your doctor can use a nasal or oral swab to test for influenza A, influenza B, and COVID-19 at the same time.

Antibody tests

An antibody or serology test is a blood test that can help determine whether you had a past infection with the virus that causes COVID-19. This test looks for antibodies produced by your immune system after infection. Since these antibodies are produced 1 to 3 weeks following infection, an antibody test should not be used to diagnose a current infection. If an antibody test is positive, it may mean that you have COVID-19 antibodies and temporary protection against another infection. However, this test is not 100% accurate. Antibody tests can also detect antibodies from other viruses in the coronavirus family of viruses, such as the one that causes the common cold. If your antibody test is positive, there’s a chance the antibodies may not be from a previous COVID-19 infection, so it’s important to have a healthcare professional review your results.

Where to be tested

If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, you should contact your doctor. They can assess your condition and order a COVID-19 test for you, if needed. If you think you may have COVID-19 or your doctor recommends you be tested, use our COVID-19 Test Site Finder to search for a testing location close to you. In addition to your doctor’s office, testing locations may include pharmacies, school health clinics, long-term care facilities, urgent care centers, or temporary drive-through testing locations.

You should avoid going to the emergency room for a COVID-19 test. Only go to the emergency room if you are experiencing life-threatening symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, chest pain or pressure, or the inability to stay awake.

For updates and information on COVID-19 during the pandemic, visit our Coronavirus Resource Center.

U.S. Food & Drug Administration website:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website:

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Stay informed by checking these resources for up-to-date information about COVID-19, especially if you’re thinking about traveling.