Which COVID test should I take? It can be confusing. If you’re not sure of the difference between polymerase chain reaction (PCR), antigen and antibody tests for COVID-19, you’re not alone. There’s been confusion surrounding the tests that’s left many people unsure about which COVID test is right for them.
Here’s a breakdown of each COVID test’s purpose, how they’re administered, and what actions are necessary to identify: What COVID-19 test should I get?
Purpose: The purpose of these COVID tests is to check whether a person has an active infection at the time of the test; if so, then they are considered to be contagious.
How an Antigen COVID Test Works: An antigen test is taken by a nasal or throat swab, which looks for antigens, a protein marker found on the outside of a SARS-CoV-2 virus. This test, also known as a rapid test, provides test results within minutes.
How a PCR COVID Test Works: A PCR test is usually taken by a nasal swab but can also be done with a throat swab or by spitting into a tube to produce a saliva sample. These tests are typically more accurate than antigen tests because they use a laboratory technique known as a polymerase chain reaction that detects genetic material of the virus. Because PCR COVID tests are usually sent to an outside lab, results can take anywhere from two to seven days.
Action: If either of these tests come back positive, the person should immediately isolate in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Make sure to check the CDC guidelines for the latest information surrounding COVID quarantine rules.
Purpose: The purpose of an antibody COVID test is to check whether a person had been infected with the virus in the past and developed antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that your body creates to help fight off infections.
It should be noted that some people recovering from COVID-19 don’t develop antibodies. In fact, according to a study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, 36% of individuals who had COVID-19 didn’t have antibodies in their blood.
How an Antibody COVID Test Works: An antibody test measures for antibodies in the blood and the test is typically done by a healthcare professional through a finger prick or blood draw from a vein in the arm.
Action: If the test is negative, then the individual does not have antibodies, which could be because the person was not infected with the virus, or they haven’t received a COVID-19 vaccine.
If the test is positive, then the individual has antibodies, meaning that they’ve been exposed to the virus and their immune system made antibodies against it.
Antibody tests can help “map” the spread of the virus, especially since we know some individuals were asymptomatic, meaning they didn’t have any symptoms during the time they were infected and were potentially unaware that they had COVID-19.
United Against the COVID virus
All of these COVID tests are valuable and effective tools that should be used to monitor and manage the spread of the virus. It’s on all of us to be as knowledgeable as possible about our personal risk factors so we can make better decisions that will protect ourselves and the people around us from COVID-19.
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