Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 testing capacity has improved immensely across the United States, with more than 226 million tests collected as of December 2020. Widespread COVID-19 testing helps prevent the spread of the virus, keeping you and your community safe. The CDC recommends COVID-19 testing for anyone who:
- Experiences COVID-19 symptoms
- Has been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19
- Is at a higher risk because they can’t socially distance as recommended, whether due to work, travel, being in crowded indoor settings, or attending large gatherings
- Has been asked to get a test by their healthcare provider or local/state health department
Many health experts believe that more testing—even for people who aren’t experiencing COVID-19 symptoms—can catch cases early and help prevent the spread.
If you’re thinking about getting tested, you may be wondering:
- How do they test for coronavirus?
- What types of tests are available?
- How does the COVID-19 test procedure work?
- How soon will you receive your test result?
- Will you experience any discomfort?
We answer all of these questions and more in this blog post.
Types of COVID-19 tests
The first thing to understand is that there are two overarching categories of COVID-19 tests: a viral diagnostic test (which detects an active COVID-19 infection) and an antibody test (which detects a past COVID-19 infection). This blog post discusses viral tests for those seeking to determine whether they are currently infected with COVID-19.
How do they test for COVID (active infections)?
As COVID-19 testing has evolved, there are now four main forms of viral diagnostic tests:
- Nose swab test: A test involving a shallow nose swab.
- Nasopharyngeal test: A test involving a deeper nasal swab that uses the PCR technique.
- Spit test: A test involving a saliva sample and the PCR technique.
- Mouth swab test: An innovation to COVID-19 testing that makes it fast, non-invasive, and easy for anyone. Uses the PCR technique.
Nose swab COVID test
The COVID nasal swab test, also known as the nasal swab test, is a medical test used to detect viruses in the nose that may cause respiratory infections.
There are different types of respiratory infections, besides COVID-19, that use a nose swab for medical diagnosis, including a nose swab for flu, meningitis, whooping cough, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
An important note: there are two types of tests that take samples from the nose. The nasal swab test involves just the anterior nares, or nostrils. However, the nasopharyngeal swab (also referred to as an np swab test) goes deeper into the nasal passages. (We talk more about that test in the section below.)
When performing the shallow COVID-19 nasal swab test, a health care professional collects a specimen sample by inserting a swab—a long stick resembling a Q-tip with a soft brush on the end—into your nostrils. The cotton swab does not need to be inserted far—just until the cotton tip of the swab is no longer visible. The healthcare provider then rotates the swab in a circle around the entire inside edge of the nostril at least three times. Then, using the same end of the cotton swab, the healthcare worker repeats in the other nostril. Once the nasal swab test is performed, the healthcare worker places the COVID swab into the collection tube and sends the test to the lab.
While many people go to a walk-up or drive-thru clinic to have the COVID nasal swab test performed, it is possible to do at home. If you’re thinking of doing an at-home Nose Swab COVID Test, follow these CDC guidelines.
Taking a self-administered nose swab COVID test
Setting up the self-swab
1. Open the nasal swab sampling kit to prepare for taking a nasal swab.
2. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water or apply hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Collecting the sample
1. Remove the swab from the container, being careful not to touch the soft end with your hands.
2. Gently insert the soft tip of the swab into one nostril. Do not insert it more than ¾ of an inch.
3. Slowly twist the swab, rubbing it along the walls of your nostril for at least 4 times during 15 seconds.
4. Gently remove the swab from your nostril.
5. Insert the same swab into the other nostril and repeat the circular swabbing for the same amount of time.
Preparing the sample for return
1. Carefully, place the swab, tip first, in the sterile tube or package. Snap off the end of the swab at the break line.
2. Re-wash your hands with soap and warm water or with hand sanitizer.
3. Place the sample tube in the biohazard bag and seal it completely.
Returning the sample and cleaning up
1. Give the sealed bag to the testing team.
2. Throw away the remaining kit items.
3. Re-apply hand sanitizer.
Nasopharyngeal swab COVID test
As mentioned above, there is one other form of a COVID nasal swab test called a nasopharyngeal swab test. We get many questions about the nasopharyngeal swab sample meaning. This test uses PCR technique to determine whether an active COVID-19 infection exists, so it can be more accurate than the above nasal swab test.
When performing the nasopharyngeal swab test, a healthcare professional inserts a collection swab long stick with a soft brush on the end—into your nostrils. However, with the nasopharyngeal swab test, the swab is inserted deep into your nose and twirled for about 10 to 15 seconds. This causes discomfort for many people, since your body isn’t used to having an object pass through that area. The sample collection can activate a lacrimal reflex, triggering tears, and a gag reflex.
After the test, samples are carefully placed in sterile packages or collection tubes and sent to a laboratory for analysis, following CDC guidelines. Once analyzed, you can typically find the results of your swab test online, sent to you digitally within 48 to 72 hours for most tests.
COVID saliva test
Another testing option, although less widely used, is the spit test or saliva COVID test.
Some healthcare facilities, such as UW Health, use saliva collection for patients who require COVID-19 testing. The test is used in people at least 3 years of age, who are about to go through an operation or medical procedure and show no symptoms. As with the mouth COVID mouth swab test and the nasopharyngeal swab test, COVID saliva testing uses PCR technique for diagnosis.
The benefit of saliva testing for COVID is that it helps healthcare systems across the country reduce the demand for testing resources such as swabs, collection kits, and materials for conservation and transportation. When performing the COVID spit test, coughing before the test may help bring up oral fluids for accurate testing. For those who aren’t able to produce enough saliva for spitting, a COVID-19 swab test would be the best option.
Mouth swab COVID test
Ten months into the pandemic, an alternative to COVID nose swabs—COVID testing via mouth swab—has been gaining traction across the country.
And with good reason: mouth swab COVID tests are much easier to complete and less invasive than nose swab COVID tests. They don’t require a viral throat swab test (a nasopharyngeal test for example) —just a simple swab of the mouth (not throat) with a cotton swab. Mouth swab tests use PCR technique, making them one of the most accurate forms of testing available. After the test, results are sent to the patient digitally within 24 to 48 hours.
Even in the first months of the pandemic, some studies showed significant levels of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in oral secretions. In a COVID-19 study published in February by the journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases, researchers detected the virus in the self-collected saliva culture of 11 out of 12 patients in Hong Kong who had tested positive for the virus.
Does the COVID-19 test hurt?
You may be wondering: does the COVID test hurt? The answer is: it depends on the test. While the nasopharyngeal swab is uncomfortable because it goes deep into the nostrils, the other tests (the mouth swab test, nose swab test, and spit test) are simpler to complete for most patients. That’s one of the reasons why we recommend the mouth swab test above all others—it’s non-invasive and easy for the patient.
How long does it take to get COVID test results?
The amount of time it takes to get a test result varies depending on the test. Antigen nose swab test results are typically sent to you digitally within one hour, while mouth swab, spit test, and nasopharyngeal PCR test results are typically sent to you digitally within 48 to 72 hours. Curative test results are sent within 24-48 hours. PCR tests are more accurate, so test results are worth the wait. It’s best to follow CDC recommendations while you await test results, which include staying home to distance yourself from others, monitoring any symptoms, wearing a mask should you leave your home, and considering people you have been around.
Get COVID-19 testing today
Testing helps keep you and your community safe. Schedule a test at your nearest location today. Get a non-invasive, self-collected COVID-19 test, observed and directed by a healthcare worker, with Curative.