How Soon After COVID-19 Exposure Should You Get Tested?

Here's how long it may take to get an accurate coronavirus test result, plus some other important advice you need to know.

So you think you may have been exposed to COVID-19. How long will it take for you to know if you’re infected?

The coronavirus affects everyone differently, including the amount of time it takes to start experiencing symptoms or get confirmation that you have the virus. That said, here’s a general timeline you can expect and what else you should know:

COVID-19 can enter someone’s body immediately after exposure, but you likely won’t know you have it right away.

There’s an incubation period for COVID-19. If you test too soon after exposure, it can result in a false negative. In one study on false negative rates after COVID-19 exposure, researchers found that in the four days prior to symptom onset, the probability of a false negative was extremely high on day one. The probability of a false negative on day four was around 67%.

This is why experts don’t recommend getting tested the day after being in a potential exposure situation. As MIT Medical explains on their COVID-19 page:

For example, it’s not a good idea to fly into Boston on a crowded flight, get a COVID-19 diagnostic test within a day or two of arrival, and then, based on a negative result, visit your elderly grandparents. The only thing that negative test can tell you is that, at that particular moment in time, your sample did not show viral levels high enough to be reliably measured. It does not mean you were not exposed and infected during your travels. It does not mean you were not exposed and infected after your arrival. Do you want to visit your grandparents after flying into Boston? Self quarantine for 14 days first.

It takes a few days after exposure to produce a positive COVID-19 test result.

There are no firm numbers on how long it takes to get an accurate positive test result. The time from exposure to the onset of symptoms is around two to 14 days, according to Harvard Health. Most people’s symptoms appear around day five, on average.

It’s recommended that you wait to get tested for at least two to three days after potential exposure. Some health experts say five days after exposure might be a good testing point, since that’s the median time when symptoms usually appear.

If you don’t have any symptoms, you still may want to get tested a few times — once about two or three days after exposure, and once again later on in the 14-day incubation period. If you are experiencing symptoms, get tested right away.

What To Do Before And After You’ve Been Tested

After you've gotten tested for the coronavirus, isolate yourself immediately and keep an eye on your symptoms as you wait for the results.
After you've gotten tested for the coronavirus, isolate yourself immediately and keep an eye on your symptoms as you wait for the results.

Isolate.

Do not continue to go out if you know you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19 (except to go get your test). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you “stay home until 14 days after last exposure and maintain social distance (at least 6 feet) from others at all times.”

A person who has the virus “may be contagious 48 to 72 hours before starting to experience symptoms,” per Harvard Health. Many cases of COVID-19 are asymptomatic, but even if you don’t have any symptoms, you can still spread the illness to others.

Alert friends and family you were near during that time.

If you saw loved ones after you were exposed to someone with the coronavirus, be sure to tell them that they could have potentially been exposed, too. They may want to isolate themselves and/or get tested.

Stay in touch with your doctor.

Keep your physician updated on your condition, particularly if it starts to worsen. Your doctor should know what over-the-counter medicines to suggest based on your medical history.

Monitor your symptoms.

The most common physical symptoms are a fever (typically over 100 degrees), loss of taste and smell, cough and shortness of breath. Other frequent symptoms include headaches, diarrhea, nausea and congestion or a runny nose. You don’t have to experience all of these symptoms to have COVID-19 ― some may get a few, some may get one, some may get them all.

If you notice that you’re unable to catch your breath or are having severe difficulty breathing, it may be best to seek emergency medical care.

Take care of yourself and others.

Continue to look out for your own well-being, as well as the health of others. Make sure high-touch surface areas in your home are frequently disinfected. Everyone in your household should wear a face mask to protect against any possible transmission. You should also get lots of rest, stay hydrated and practice self-care however you can.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.