How Do The Coronavirus Tests Work?

Here's what to expect when you get tested for COVID-19, from what it's like to how long results take.

As COVID-19 spreads and is now within many of our communities, there are all sorts of rumors, questions and horror stories flying around about what the testing process is like: Does it hurt to get the nasal swab done? How long does it take to get the results back? Where do you go to get the test done? And what happens if a test comes back positive?

While the experience is different for everyone, there are some general elements you can expect. We chatted with experts to get the details on everything from how the novel coronavirus test is administered to how long you have to wait for results. Here’s what you should know:

The first step of the coronavirus testing process is to call your doctor

Before rushing off to a testing center, you should have your doctor evaluate you over the phone and determine whether it’s appropriate that you have testing done, said Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum, a professor of clinical medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

If this is a yes, you will be referred to a testing center, which Fichtenbaum said may be a drive-thru or a clinical site.

“Usually you are called and given an appointment time and then you come in at that designated time,” he said.

Be prepared for the COVID-19 test to feel uncomfortable

The COVID-19 test is a swab, usually taken through your nose, explained Tista Ghosh, the medical director at Grand Rounds, an epidemiologist and former member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Community Preventive Services Task Force.

“I have to say it’s not probably the most comfortable thing,” she said, but noted that it is over pretty quickly and that she wouldn’t describe it as painful.

This process, also known as a nasopharyngeal swab, is the best way to get the most accurate specimen type at the moment, said Gary W. Procop, chair of the American Society for Clinical Pathology’s Commission on Science, Technology and Policy and vice chair and director for virology at Cleveland Clinic. The problem, however, is that the inventory of these swabs is running low.

“And so plan B is to use a throat swab, just like when you swab the throat of a child with strep throat,” Procop said. This is a less reliable method because the nose is “where the virus is most prevalent,” he added. But when the nasal swabs are not available, a throat swab is the next step.

“If you’ve ever had a strep throat test, that might be something to compare it to,” Ghosh said. “They really stick something down your throat and try to scrape some of the throat cells out. Same with the nose; they try to scrape some of your cells out of your nose to see if the virus is growing in there.”

In total, the actual test shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Olan Soremekun, chief medical officer at Ready Responders, said, “Some patients may experience mild and temporary discomfort at having a cotton swab inserted deeply into their nostrils and throat.”

Fichtenbaum added that the clinic may also ask you some questions about where you have traveled recently and what your activities for the past few weeks might have been, like if you have been self-isolating or if you were around any crowds. You may also be asked to quarantine yourself until you get your test results.

Sebastian Condrea via Getty Images

Coronavirus test result times vary from one day to 10 days or more

After your get your swab done, the clinicians will send it off for examination to see if the virus is present in any of the cells collected, Ghosh said. It can take anywhere from 24 hours to 10 days to get your results, depending on the lab and how backed up it is, she added.

If you find out that you are positive, your health care provider will be notified and they should connect with you immediately.

They will likely conduct a follow-up with you. “We want to have our physicians answer all questions patients may have, especially if testing is positive,” added Bradley Younggren, chief medical officer at 98point6.

If your test comes back positive, you should alert multiple people and monitor your symptoms

By now, you should be staying away from most people and staying home as much as you can. If you have a test that comes back positive, this practice is even more essential.

“If you live with people, try to stay in a separate room, try to use a separate bathroom, try to avoid sharing personal items like cups and utensils,” Ghosh said, noting that you should also be smart about making sure that frequently touched items ― like doorknobs and handles ― should be cleaned often because the virus can live on surfaces for up to a few days.

“And if your symptoms get worse at all, especially if there’s difficulty breathing, you need to go to an ER or urgent care immediately,” Ghosh said.

If you can, try calling ahead before doing this so you can let the facility know that you have COVID-19. And try wearing a mask or something around your mouth so that you’re not spreading it to other people when you get there.

“Giving the ER or the urgent care a heads-up is really useful because they can put protocols in place so that you’re not exposing other people in the waiting room,” she said.

Taking care of yourself and following proper protocol could be vital for more than just you.

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