What you need to know about at-home rapid tests for COVID-19
February 08, 2022
Home COVID-19 rapid tests have suddenly become more accessible for many. The federal government last month began its program to ship free tests. Also, private insurers are now required to pay for up to eight rapid tests per member per month.
The first rule of purchasing an over-the-counter test is making certain it’s a name brand approved by the Food and Drug Administration, says UH Urgent Care Medical Director Sean McNeeley, MD.
The FDA and Federal Trade Commission have warned consumers about unauthorized test kits sold online.
Dr. McNeeley says home antigen tests are a great tool, but they should be used with caution. False negatives are not uncommon. Accuracy also can be skewed by not following directions on how to administer the test.
Dr. McNeeley recommends having someone watch you take the test to ensure nasal swabbing and other steps are done correctly.
“You have to make sure they’re used correctly and understand their limits,” he says. “If you assume things based on lack of knowledge, you can get yourself into trouble.”
If you test positive for the virus, you likely are positive. But a negative result should be viewed with caution, especially if you have symptoms.
If you have symptoms and others in the household have COVID-19, you likely are positive even if you test negative, he says.
“You need to understand what a positive test means and what a negative test means,” Dr. McNeeley says. “When you have symptoms, you’re ill and test negative, you should be suspicious. Treat yourself as if you have COVID anyway.”
That means self-isolation. Why do that?
“Because it’s not fair to the next person to get them ill, even if the disease isn’t COVID,” he says. “We don’t want to give people the flu either.”
Dr. McNeeley says if you are ill and test negative, consider getting a PCR test. They are more reliable than at-home rapid tests. A PCR test detects virus genetic material and is administered at testing sites and medical facilities. Results can take a couple days.
He recommends a follow-up PCR test especially for people who test negative at home but have symptoms and are vulnerable because of advanced age or underlying health problems.
“You should get a PCR test if you really need to know,” he says. “If you have preexisting conditions such as obesity, diabetes or lung disease and you are sick, you should be evaluated and tested at a medical facility.”