Diagnosing COVID-19

There are two kinds of tests available to diagnose COVID-19: tests for current infection (viral tests) and tests for past infection (antibody tests). The tests each perform a separate function. Your doctor may order a viral test to diagnose your illness if they suspect that you have COVID-19. If your doctor believes you were previously infected, they may order an antibody test to confirm.

Find a Testing Site

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has a COVID-19 testing site locator if you need to find a testing site near you. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act ensures that COVID-19 testing is free to anyone in the U.S.

Viral Tests

Viral tests use respiratory samples, such as a swab from inside your nose or saliva from your mouth, to determine if you are currently infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Depending on the testing site, results may be available within a few minutes, a few hours or may take several days if the sample is sent to a laboratory for analysis.

If you think you have been exposed to the virus and are exhibiting symptoms, speak to your healthcare provider to determine if you should be tested. Your doctor may request you come into the office for testing, visit another testing site, use a self-collection kit or self-test. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed Take the CDC’s COVID-19 Viral Testing Tool or read below.

You should get tested for COVID-19 if you:

  • Are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19
  • Had a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.
    • If vaccinated – get tested 3-5 days after exposure and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until you receive a negative test result
    • If not fully vaccinated – quarantine and get tested immediately after identifying the exposure and, if negative, test again in 5-7 days after the last exposure or immediately if you develop symptoms during quarantine.
  • Are not fully vaccinated and are prioritized for community screening of COVID-19
  • Are not fully vaccinated and have been asked or referred to get tested by your school, workplace, healthcare provider, or state, local, tribal or territorial health department.

You do not need to be tested if you:

  • Were exposed to someone with COVID-19, do not have COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19 in the past three months and recovered. If you develop new symptoms, you should be tested.

Results from your viral test will indicate that you either:

  • Test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Take these steps, regardless of your COVID-19 vaccination status, to protect others:
    • Isolate at home for at least 10 days. If you develop symptoms, continue to monitor for at least 10 days after symptoms began. If after ten days your symptoms have improved and you don’t have a fever for at least 24 hours without use of a fever-reducing medication, you can end isolation.
    • Monitor your symptoms. Most people have mild symptoms from COVID-19 and can recover at home without medical care.
    • Maintain close communication with your healthcare provider who will want to monitor your progress. Talk to our healthcare provider as soon as possible if you are high risk for severe illness for possible treatment options or if your symptoms get worse.
  • Test negative for COVID-19. This means you were not infected at the time the sample was collected and analyzed. This doesn’t mean that you won’t get sick, only that you didn’t have COVID-19 when you were tested. You can think of this like a single snapshot in time that doesn’t determine if you had COVID-19 previously or if you will be exposed and infected in the future.
    • If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you might have received a false negative result and still have COVID-19 so you should still isolate from others. Contact your healthcare provider about your symptoms, especially if they get worse, about further testing and how long to isolate.
    • If you do not have symptoms of COVID-19, you are likely not infected but you could still get sick.
      • If you are fully vaccinated there is no need to self-quarantine at home.
      • If you are not fully vaccinated, you should self-quarantine at home for 14 days after your exposure. Contact your healthcare provider who will want to stay updated on your progress.
    • If you later experience symptoms, or have close contact with an infected individual, you should speak with your doctor to determine if you need another test.

Antibody Tests to Detect Past Infection

Antibody tests are performed by drawing blood and conducting a laboratory test to check for antibodies that would only be present if you had a past infection of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. An antibody test should not be used to determine current infection as it can take your body one to three weeks after infection to make antibodies. If you think you were previously infected with COVID-19, you should speak with your doctor about your symptoms or exposure to infected individuals.

Results from your antibody test will be positive if you were previously infected with CODI-19 and negative if you have not been previously infected. Regardless of the status of your test, you should take steps, including getting vaccinated, to protect against COVID-19.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: October 20, 2021

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