Now few years into the pandemic, new variants, shifting CDC guidelines, and a shortage of healthcare providers have made at-home COVID-19 rapid tests the new hot-ticket item, since they allow you to test yourself in the comfort and safety of your own space, and in doing so, can help minimize the spread of COVID-19—not to mention help cut down on wait times at testing centers. These at-home tests are helpful whether or not you’ve received both your vaccinations (and even a booster), since breakthrough cases are a possibility. That said, at-home COVID-19 tests are not created equal. Here’s what you need to know before you start swabbing.
What are the different at-home COVID-19 tests?
The first kind of diagnostic at-home COVID-19 test is a molecular test, a.k.a. a PCR test—these are the kind usually required for international travel. “The second test is known as an antigen test, a rapid antigen test, or a rapid test,” says Rachael Piltch-Loeb, PhD, associate research scientist at NYU School of Global Public Health and a preparedness fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The rapid test detects specific proteins on the surface of the virus,” Dr. Piltch-Loeb says. Both work the same way: You stick the nasal swab in your nose to collect a sample, stick the swab into the test tube or strip, and then wait for your test result.
How accurate are they?
The most common at-home COVID-19 test kits are the antigen tests. “These are pretty accurate at detecting an infectious case of COVID-19,” says Dr. Piltch-Loeb. “With the Omicron variant, there have been some reports that rapid tests are missing cases of the virus in the early stages of disease. However, the tests remain a great indicator of when you are infected and able to spread the virus.”
All to say: While false negatives might potentially happen in the first few days of a COVID-19 infection, rapid tests are still worth having and using. Since the Omicron variant in particular replicates so quickly, you could have a negative result in the morning and a positive result by the afternoon, according to Dr. Piltch-Loeb. If you’re not sure, consider taking two tests. “If you test positive on a rapid antigen test—especially two in a row—you are infectious and should begin your isolation,” she says. “It is not necessary to follow up a rapid result with a PCR result to confirm your positivity unless you are required by an employer or other entity.”
Where can you get an at-home COVID-19 test?
While you can get over-the-counter tests at pharmacies, they’re also available online; you might also be able to get free tests through your local health department. To make sure you’re getting one that’s legit, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given emergency use authorization (EUA) to a number of manufacturers to create and sell these rapid test kits to detect SARS-CoV-2, so check their list. Some will also share their EUA documents on retail sites, too, to do the legwork for you.
At-home COVID-19 tests are selling out quickly, which is why we rounded up available options to make it easier for you to find what’s in stock. Shop them below—along with some of the best N95 face masks and the best disposable face masks.