A person holds a COVID-19 at-home rapid rest in their fingers.
Illustration: PGN

What you need to know

  • Rapid at-home tests are speedy, convenient, and accurate if taken at the right time.
  • They are not a substitute for getting vaccinated, but they can serve as an extra layer of precaution before travel or social events.
  • Each household can order up to 16 free at-home tests from the federal government.

The conversation around COVID-19 at-home tests has been confusing throughout the pandemic. Rapid tests are key to keeping the virus under control, but they’ve also had a bad rap for being unreliable or hard to find. Here are answers to questions you may have regarding rapid tests, how to use them, and where to find them.

Why COVID-19 at-home rapid tests? 

The power of rapid tests lies in their speed and convenience. They return results in just 15 minutes and you can administer them at home. Instead of taking a PCR test and waiting days to find out whether you’re infected, rapid tests give you an almost immediate result. 

The trade-off for this convenience is that rapid tests are less sensitive than PCR tests. Experts consider PCR tests the “gold standard” because they can detect the virus within days of infection and in asymptomatic patients. Taking a rapid test during the earliest phase of an infection, before the virus has replicated widely, can result in a false negative.

However, this does not render them useless. Rapid rests are very reliable at identifying people who are most likely to be infectious. When used correctly, they can help limit COVID-19 transmission.

When should I take an at-home test?

If you think you may have been exposed or if you have symptoms, a rapid at-home test can be a quick way to see if you need to isolate. The most reliable time to take a rapid test is at least five days after exposure or 48 hours after symptoms start. Beware of false negatives if you are testing prior to that window. 

Rapid tests can also be helpful in determining when it’s safe to leave isolation after a COVID-19 infection. There is a 31 percent chance you’re still infectious at the end of a five-day isolation period. This is why it’s critical to take a rapid at-home test before deciding to re-enter society. It is much safer to leave isolation after seven days with a negative test or to remain in isolation for a total of 10 days if you cannot obtain a test.

You should also consider taking a rapid test before attending any sort of public, indoor event and before traveling. Doing so is a responsible way to make sure you aren’t potentially carrying the virus into a higher-risk situation. Rapid tests are not a substitute for vaccination, but they can serve as an extra layer of precaution.

Where can I access COVID-19 at-home rapid tests? 

Each household in the U.S. can order up to 16 free at-home tests from the federal government. People with a health plan may be able to access more at-home tests for free through their insurance. Otherwise, you can purchase FDA-approved, rapid at-home tests at your local pharmacy.