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Coronavirus (COVID-19) Tests: Which One Is Best?

Article Translations: (Spanish)

Two kinds of viral tests can see if someone is infected with coronavirus: molecular tests (such as PCR) and antigen tests. Because they help to diagnose infection, they’re also called “diagnostic tests."

  • Molecular tests are very sensitive, which means they can find even very small amounts of the virus. But it can take time for the results to be ready. 
  • Antigen tests are a little less sensitive and can sometimes miss the virus when someone has low amounts of it in their body at the start or end of the illness. Test results, though, can be ready very quickly, which is why they’re often called “rapid” tests.

Note: A different test (an antibody test) can see if someone was infected in the past or is vaccinated.

There isn’t one test that’s best for all situations. Which one someone needs can depend on:

  • how quickly they need the results
  • how important it is to get the most accurate result
  • how easy or convenient it is to get the test

It can be tricky to figure out which test to get. Your doctor can help you figure out which test you or your child might need.

When Someone Has Symptoms of COVID-19

Both types of tests can help to see if symptoms are due to COVID-19:

  • Molecular tests are so sensitive that they can find even a small amount of virus in a person’s nose or throat. These tests are the best option when someone needs to know for sure if they’re infected (to get treatment, for example). But it can take at least a day or two to get the results.
  • When quicker results are needed, an antigen test can be a good option. For example, parents might need to know right away if a child is infected so they can isolate them and prevent spread in the household. When they’re not at the start or end of the illness, people who are infected have a lot of virus in their nose and throat. This is when they’re most contagious, and when antigen tests can be as sensitive as molecular tests. If an antigen test does not show infection, a doctor may choose to confirm the negative result with a molecular test.

When Someone Has No Symptoms After Exposure to COVID-19

Both types of tests can help check whether someone has the virus after being exposed to an infected person:

  • Because molecular tests are more sensitive, they can detect infection even when there’s very little virus in the nose or throat. This makes them more accurate for people who don’t have symptoms, as they tend to have less virus in their nose and throat than people who feel sick.
  • If quick results are needed, an antigen test is good too. If it doesn’t show infection on the first try, doing the test again a day or two later often can catch the virus as levels rise. People who are vaccinated should get tested 5–7 days after exposure. People who aren’t vaccinated should get tested as soon as they know they’ve been exposed, and again 5–7 days after exposure.

When Someone Plans to Travel

For air travel, many places require that travelers have a negative COVID-19 test within 3 days before their flight. Some countries require a molecular test, such as PCR. Others might accept either type of viral test (molecular or antigen). There may be different rules for crossing borders by car or train. Cruise ships will have their own guidelines too.

Many places also require getting tested upon arrival. Vaccinated people might have different requirements than those who aren’t vaccinated. If you plan to travel, find out what’s needed in your home country, at your destination, and on your airline. Visit the CDC’s site for more information.

When Schools and Workplaces Routinely Screen

Checking people with no symptoms and no known exposures is called screening. Often used in schools or workplaces, screening is an important way to slow the spread of infection. Both types of tests can be used for screening, but those with quick results are the most practical. So, schools and workplaces generally do antigen tests. They’re quick, easy to use, and less expensive. They’re less sensitive than molecular tests, so often need to be repeated (such as 2 to 3 times per week).

When People Are Preparing to Gather

Holiday and other gatherings often involve people from different households getting together indoors and removing masks to eat and drink. Rapid testing right before the event can help keep everyone safe and healthy. If all guests have a negative antigen test before an event, the chances are very low that someone is contagious and could spread coronavirus.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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