Pick the best COVID test for every situation

Last updated: Nov 1, 2022
An at-home rapid test may be a better option than a PCR test. Find out why.

Over the past two years, COVID-19 at-home rapid tests – also known as antigen tests – have become an important way to stay on top of the virus. They’re quick and help reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That makes them a great option for finding out whether your symptoms are due to COVID-19 or something else.

With that in mind, does anyone really need to go to their doctor or a testing site for a PCR test anymore? Here’s expert guidance so you can pick the ideal COVID-19 test in every situation. 

Situation: You feel fine but need a negative test for school, work, or a social gathering.

Your best test: An at-home rapid test

Unless your school, work, or hosts require a PCR test, a rapid test is your best bet. A home test will give you results in a matter of minutes. A PCR test can take days. A positive rapid test result is very reliable and means you currently have an infection. (Also keep in mind that a negative result doesn’t rule out an infection, according to the CDC.)

Taking a PCR test in this situation might actually make things more confusing. “The PCR is so sensitive that it can pick up a few dead viral particles in your nose,” says Monica Gandhi, MD. She’s an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.

In fact, a PCR test can still show a positive result up to 90 days after an initial positive test for COVID-19, says the CDC. That means it may not be an accurate way of telling whether you are currently infected, contagious, or both.

The CDC recommends taking an at-home test before you go to any indoor gathering. This is key if you’ll be around anyone who is at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19. That includes adults 65 and older and anyone with a weakened immune system. It also includes people who are unvaccinated.

For the most accurate results, take the test as close to the event as possible.

Situation: You feel sick and think you might have COVID-19.

Your best test: An at-home rapid test

Let’s say you’ve been exposed to the virus or have suspicious symptoms. Maybe you’re coughing or have a sore throat. Taking an at-home test can clear things up. “If you go by the CDC guidelines, the at-home testing is really to find out if your symptoms are due to COVID-19 or not,” says Dr. Gandhi.

And if you test positive? Get in touch with your doctor for next steps.

Situation: You test negative on a rapid test but suspect you might have COVID-19.

Your best test: A second rapid test, or a PCR test

What if you test negative even though you have symptoms? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends doing a second rapid test 48 hours after you took the first one.

This is because if you test too soon after becoming infected with COVID-19, the at-home test won’t be able to pick it up. That could lead to false negatives. Repeat testing over time helps avoid a false negative.

If the second rapid test is also negative, you have several options, says the FDA. You could repeat the rapid test 48 hours after the second one. You could get a PCR test. Or you could call your doctor.

Your provider may want to test you with a PCR test or test for other causes of your symptoms, such as the flu or strep throat.

Situation: You were exposed and have no symptoms. But you want to make sure you’re negative so you don’t infect anyone.

Your best test: An at-home rapid test

The ideal time to do the home test is at least five days after your exposure, per the CDC. If you test negative and don’t have any symptoms, the FDA advises you to test again 48 hours after your first test. Still negative? Do a third test 48 hours after your second one.

The bottom line: Rapid tests are quick, often reliable (especially if you get a positive result), and convenient. In most cases, they’re worth using instead of PCR tests. Plus, you may be eligible for reimbursement for your over-the-counter (OTC) at-home tests. View our How to get reimbursed for COVID-19 tests page for more information.

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