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3 prominent doctors on how best to use rapid, at-home COVID tests — and which single test has ‘been shown to be very accurate’

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Alisa Wolfson

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The last thing most of us want to do is unknowingly get another person sick with COVID-19, but heading into the doctor’s office to get tested can be inconvenient. But just how accurate are the rapid, at-home COVID tests, and which tests should you buy? We asked three prominent doctors to weigh in. 

When in doubt, get tested, says Dr. Shira Doron, hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. “At-home tests might be less sensitive than lab-based PCR tests, but since they’re often used in situations [when] you would not have tested otherwise, we like to say any test is better than no test,” says Doron. And definitely get tested if you are showing any COVID symptoms, or if you may have been exposed to someone with the virus. Doron’s pick for a rapid, at-home test is the Binax NOW COVID-19 test, $23.99 for two at Walgreens . He says these tests have been “the most well studied, and have been shown to be very accurate.” What’s more, these tests recently got FDA authorization for over-the-counter, at-home serial screening.

Learn more: Binax NOW COVID-19 tests, $23.99 for two at Walgreens

And Dr. William Schaffner , professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says that using rapid antigen tests — which is what many of the at-home tests are — is a reasonable thing to do if you’re not feeling well. “If you want to be admitted to an event or you want to be sure you don’t give your grandmother or aunt with diabetes COVID-19, you can get one of these for yourself and you don’t have to go into a provider,” says Schaffner. (The QuickVue At-Home OTC Covid-19 tests, $23,99 for two at Walgreens also got that FDA at-home authorization.)

Learn more: QuickVue At-Home OTC Covid-19 tests, $23,99 for two at Walgreens

Just how accurate are at-home rapid tests?  

They have higher rates of false positives and false negatives than PCR tests, so if you have no symptoms and get a positive result, Doron recommends seeking a PCR test right away. [ The FDA also has a handy guide breaking down the differences between tests here. ] And keep in mind that, “someone can test negative on an antigen test, and at that time or very quickly thereafter, be potentially contagious with the virus,” says Garner. Adds Doron: “A false negative can result in an infected person exposing others.” So at-home tests are best when you have symptoms, says Dr. Omai Garner, associate clinical professor and vice chair for clinical laboratory affairs at UCLA Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “They should be used within the first three to five days of symptomatic illness, and shouldn’t be used outside of that window at home,” says Garner. Furthermore, “if you have classic COVID-19 symptoms and a negative rapid test, you might also consider getting a PCR, especially if you do the rapid test more than three days after symptom onset, when it is known that the false negative rate increases,” says Doron. 

Still, Garner says any test that’s FDA-approved for home use is fine for certain symptomatic testing scenarios. “If you test positive on an antigen, back it up with a confirmatory PCR. And if you have a negative antigen test but have worsening symptoms, you should also get a PCR,” says Garner. And Schaffner says the main reason rapid antigen tests are so appealing is because they’re convenient and quick, and notes that positive results are “reliable.” Here are two at-home tests to consider:

Binax NOW COVID-19 tests, $23.99 for two at Walgreens

This rapid test provides results in 15 minutes and can be taken anytime, anywhere, although it’s suggested that they’re taken twice within three days with at least 36 hours between tests. “These are the most well studied and have been shown to be very accurate,” says Doron.

QuickVue At-Home OTC Covid-19 tests, $23,99 for two at Walgreens

Utilizing a gentle nasal swab, this test takes about 10 minutes to yield results and has been authorized by the FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization. The package contains two nasal swabs, two test strips, two pre-filled tubes and is approved for use for anyone over age 2.

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