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COVID PCR tests are molecular tests that analyze your upper respiratory specimen, looking for genetic material (ribonucleic acid or RNA) of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

What is PCR testing?

Molecular COVID-19 tests, or PCR tests, are designed to test for an active COVID-19 infection. The most common molecular test uses reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, which is often just referred to as PCR testing. Most people at this point have had at least one PCR test completed. However, if not, it can be helpful to know more about PCR testing, what it entails, and if you are a good candidate for getting a PCR test.

Molecular tests are designed to detect the presence of SARS-COV-2 by measuring if your body contains any of the virus’s genetic material. The process of analyzing a sample to determine if you have an active COVID-19 infection involves copying the genetic material many times over, and then the genetic material can be analyzed for any traces of the virus. This copying process is known as “amplification,” in which nucleic acids (your genetic material) are analyzed. For this reason, this process is also known as nucleic acid amplification testing (NAAT). Ultimately, this test is measuring the DNA or RNA of a pathogen in a sample, and most viruses contain either DNA or RNA and, thus, can be detected using these mechanisms.

NAAT tests are the most commonly performed PCR tests, as they are the most reliable, whether a person is symptomatic or not. Also, these types of tests can detect the virus for up to 90 days after testing positive. So, if you know that you have had an active COVID infection within the past 90 days, a NAAT test may not be the best option for seeing if you are actively shedding the virus, as you still may test positive when you are not actively contagious.

Who should get a molecular (PCR) test?

The CDC recommends that you should get a PCR test if you believe you have been exposed to COVID-19 or are showing symptoms of illness. While the PCR testing will pick up the virus for several months after infection, the CDC notes that it is great for detecting an early infection or for those who may have been exposed but are not yet presenting with symptoms. These PCR tests can often find evidence of being infected with COVID-19 in the earliest stages when compared to other testing modalities. This is because other testing modalities rely on your body’s antibody response, which takes time to kick into gear. PCR testing can detect the virus when there is a small amount of pathogen in the body, before tons of antibodies are released, rather than relying on the number of antibodies that are produced in response to an infection.

Additional reasons for people to consider getting a PCR test:

  • If you have been around large groups of people, such as large gatherings, traveling, concerts, etc.
  • If you work in a high risk environment (such as in a hospital or nursing home)
  • If you are considering getting surgery
  • If you are considering beginning a medication regime that could affect your immune system

How to get a PCR test

PCR tests are widely available throughout the country; however, an individual’s access may vary depending on their geographical location. There are two main types of PCR tests, commercial and laboratory-developed tests. Commercial tests are kits that you can purchase and can complete at various facilities or a healthcare provider’s office. Lab-developed tests are not for public use and often are reserved for medical facilities, so chances are that if you are getting a molecular PCR test, it is for commercial use.

Ultimately, if you are interested in getting a PCR test completed, you should reach out to a healthcare provider, who can likely point you in the right direction. Many people go to their healthcare provider’s office to have the test completed, or they will go to a lab or a certified drive-through testing site.

Two at-home molecular testing options are currently available: The first is an at-home self-collection test, in which you take the swab at home and then send it to a lab for analysis. And the second is the at-home self-test, in which the sample is analyzed using a device included in the kit. Many people choose this second option (the at-home self-test) out of ease, convenience, and the ability to get rapid results, usually within half an hour.

What to expect during a PCR test

If you haven’t undergone the experience of getting a PCR test, it can be helpful to know what you are going into ahead of time so that you can be best prepared. First, there are typically no steps needed or considerations to be made before going for a test.

During the test

During the test, swabs are either entered into the nose or the throat and turned around several times against the inside of the nostril or inside the cheek to collect enough genetic material. Sometimes, if a provider is swabbing the nose, the swabs are entered deeper into the nostril, which can be mildly uncomfortable. The good news is that the test is usually over in under a minute, so the discomfort does not last.

If a PCR test is being conducted in which saliva is collected, the test simply requires that you spit into a test tube enough to fill the tube. There is usually no discomfort associated with this form of testing.

After the test

After the test, you should not notice any side effects and you should not have any limitations, according to Medline Plus. Usually, you receive results within 1-3 days; however, this can vary based on the testing site.

What to do if you test positive after getting a PCR test

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you test positive after getting a molecular test completed, you should follow the CDC's guidelines for safely isolating yourself until you recover.

Current CDC quarantine guidelines recommend that if you test positive for COVID-19 you:

  • Isolate and take precautions to prevent spreading the sickness to others
  • Wear a high-quality mask if you need to be in public
  • Inform those whom you have been in contact with that you tested positive
  • Monitor your symptoms and seek necessary medical care, if needed
  • Contact your healthcare provider to learn about any treatment options that could be relevant for you

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