whentotest
  • Rapid tests tell you whether you have a lot of virus in your system right now.

  • They provide a result in as little as 10-15 minutes.

  • They’re also called self-tests, antigen tests, or over-the-counter (OTC) tests.

  • When you know you might be contagious, you can make responsible choices about getting together with other people.

  • Medications to treat COVID are now available for people who are at high risk of getting severely sick from COVID. But they have to be started within a few days of when symptoms began. The sooner you get tested, the sooner you can start treatment.

The WhenToTest COVID Risk Quiz an help tell you how likely it is that you’re infected and how likely it is that you’ll spread the virus to other people.

You definitely need to test when:

  • You have COVID symptoms.

  • You have had close contact with someone who has COVID. Close contact means that you were within 6 feet of the infected person for a total of at least 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours. Wait 5 days after the close contact before testing. You'll also need to wear a mask, and you may need to quarantine. Learn more.

  • Your work or schedule puts you in close contact with people who are infected. In this situation, you should test every few days.

  • Your workplace or school requires it.

  • You're going to an event or social gathering. Get tested as close to the event date and time as possible.

If you're traveling, you might also have to test, depending on where you're going, how you're getting there, and whether you're vaccinated.

If you're using a rapid test, remember that they are designed to be used twice: You take one test now, and one test a day or two later. Check the test's instructions for details.

  • Each household can order free tests directly from the federal government at www.covidtests.gov or by calling 1-800-232-0233 (TTY 1-888-720-7489). In the latest round of offerings, each household can get eight tests.

  • You may be able to get free tests through your local health department.

  • The Rockefeller Foundation's Project ACT program is offering free at-home COVID tests to individuals in certain ZIP codes while supplies last.

  • Private commercial health insurance will reimburse you for up to eight tests per person per month purchased online or in stores. Check with your insurance provider for their reimbursement policy.

  • Military beneficiaries can get up to eight free tests per month at military hospitals or clinics.

  • People with Medicare Part B can get up to eight free home tests per month at health-care facilities and participating pharmacies.

  • ProjectN95.org is a trustworthy online source for rapid tests and other protective equipment.

If it's been kept dry and at room temperature, it probably will, especially if it expired recently. But it may not be expired, after all! Many companies have shown that their tests last longer than the company thought they would. The FDA has changed the expiration dates for those tests.

To find out whether your test's expiration date has been changed, go to the FDA's website and look for the brand of test you have. If you see the word "extended" in the Expiration Date column, then the FDA has changed the expiration dates for your brand of test.

Next, look for the lot number on the test's packaging. Once you've found it, go to the Expiration Date column for your brand of test on the FDA site and click on the link there. That will bring up all the lot numbers for that type of test and the new expiration dates for each lot.

Rapid tests are designed to work at room temperature. So if your test got very hot or very cold, make sure you let it cool down or warm up for at least two hours before using it.

If your test froze, make sure it has completely thawed and come to room temperature before you use it.

If your test was left in very high temperatures (above 86 degrees F / 30 degrees C) for a long time, it may not work.

Rapid tests do one thing really well: If you’re carrying a lot of virus, they turn up positive.

If you have symptoms or were recently around someone with COVID:

  • A positive test result means you are almost certainly infected.

  • A negative test result might not be right. If you just got infected, you may not have enough virus in your system for a rapid test to detect.

  • Once your virus levels have gone up, a rapid test will show a positive result. That’s why home tests are usually sold in packs of two.

  • It’s best to take the second test 24 - 48 hours after the first. The amount of time you should wait varies depending on the brand of test. You can also get a lab test to confirm your result.

  • Be sure to follow all of the instructions that came with the test.

Rapid Tests

  • Typically give results within minutes.

  • Are very good at turning positive if you have a lot of active virus in your system.

  • Are not as good as lab tests are at turning positive if you don't have very much virus.

  • Are designed to be taken twice: You take one test now, and one test a day or two later.

Lab Tests

  • Are sometimes called PCR tests.

  • Are the most accurate kind of test for COVID we have now.

  • Can take anywhere from a few hours to several days to give results.

  • Can turn positive even if you only have little pieces of virus in your system and are no longer contagious.

  • When you first get infected, you may not have enough virus in your body to make a rapid test turn positive.

  • If you test right after you get COVID symptoms, or right after you were around someone with COVID, you might test negative on a rapid test even though you're infected.

  • That's why the second test in the pack is there: So you can test again a day or two later. If you're infected, you should have enough virus in your body by then to make the test turn positive.

  • The amount of time you should wait varies depending on the brand of test. You can also get a lab test to confirm your result.

  • Be sure to follow all of the instructions that came with the test.

Most rapid tests are designed to be used twice: You take one test now and one test a day or two later. That's why they're sold in packs of two. If you use them that way, you'll get the most accurate result.

You need to test twice if:

  • You have COVID symptoms, OR

  • You were exposed to someone with COVID, OR

  • You have another reason to suspect that you might be infected.

In this situation, your first test might be negative even though you're infected because the virus hasn't had enough time to grow in your body. If you test again a day or two later, the second test is more likely to be positive.

You might be able to test only once if:

  • You don't have COVID symptoms, AND

  • You're testing right before you attend a gathering that won't include anyone who's at high risk of getting very sick from COVID.

In this situation, you're making sure you're not contagious right now, so you don't infect anyone at the event. To be more sure, you should test a day or two before the event, and then test again right before the event happens.

The Test to Treat program lets people who are at high risk of getting very sick from COVID get tested and receive free treatment in the same visit. Here's how it works:

  • If you're at high risk and think you might have COVID, you can go to a participating pharmacy-based clinic or community health center and get tested. If you test positive on a rapid test at home, or you get tested somewhere else and show up positive, you can bring your results with you instead of getting tested at the pharmacy or health center.

  • Not all pharmacy-based clinics or community health centers offer Test to Treat, so check before you go.

  • Bring with you a list of all the medications that you take, as well as any recent lab reports.

  • If you test positive, the health care provider at the clinic will look at your list of medications and lab results and talk to you about your health. That information will tell them if they can prescribe COVID medication for you.

  • If the health care provider prescribes COVID medication for you, you can get it for free at that same pharmacy or community health center.

If you have COVID symptoms or were recently around someone with COVID, a positive test result means you are almost certainly infected. You'll need to isolate. If you're at high risk, you should consider treatment.

In rare cases, you can test positive and not be infected, especially if you don't have symptoms. A lab test can confirm whether this “false positive” is accurate or not. Isolate until you get your results.

That’s good news, but your condition might change. After you’ve been exposed to COVID, it takes a few days for enough virus to grow in your body that you test positive.

If you have COVID symptoms

  • Test again 24 – 48 hours later. The amount of time you should wait varies depending on the brand of test — check the package to make sure.

  • You can also get a lab test to confirm your result.

If you've been in close contact with someone with COVID

  • What you need to do depends on whether you're vaccinated and whether you tested positive during the last 90 days.

  • The most important thing to remember is that a negative test result doesn't change what you need to do.

Some people who have been exposed to COVID get sick but never test positive on a rapid test, even when they test for several days. There are two main reasons why this can happen:

  • They could have some other disease.

  • They could have COVID, but they don't carry or shed enough virus to make an antigen test turn positive.

One way to check is to get a PCR test. That kind of test will turn positive even if the sample only has a very small amount of virus in it.