Antigen tests lined up like dominos, about to topple over.
Illustration: PGN

Leer en español

What you need to know

  • At-home rapid tests are helpful when you have symptoms, when you have been exposed, and before traveling or attending a gathering.
  • A negative test result does not rule out infection. If you have been exposed and have symptoms, take two tests 48 hours apart.
  • If you have been exposed but do not have symptoms, the FDA recommends taking three tests to make sure you’re not infected.

Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 testing was conducted almost exclusively with PCR tests. Since then, much has changed, including the availability and quality of rapid antigen tests that people can self-administer. 

These at-home rapid tests can serve as a crucial tool for reducing COVID-19 transmission. They offer easier access, fast turnaround times, and reduced stress on lab capacity. But two and a half years into the pandemic, confusion around these tests continues to limit their effectiveness. Knowing when and how to use at-home rapid tests will be key to keeping the pandemic under control if we experience another wave this fall and winter.

When should I take an at-home rapid test?

At-home rapid tests are helpful for most situations, including when you have symptoms, when you have been exposed, and before you travel or attend a gathering. The timing of testing in each of these scenarios is important. If you have symptoms, test immediately. If you were exposed but have no symptoms, test five days after exposure. Test right before traveling, attending a gathering, or spending time with people who are at risk for serious illness.

My rapid test came back negative. Am I in the clear?

Taking just one rapid test is not always enough to rule out infection. A negative result means the test did not detect the virus at that time, but it doesn’t guarantee that you aren’t infected. If you have symptoms, the FDA recommends taking two tests 48 hours apart to reduce the risk of getting a false negative. If you were exposed but have no symptoms, the FDA recommends taking three tests, each 48 hours apart.

My rapid test came back positive. What should I do now?

A positive result means you are most likely infectious with COVID-19 and should start isolating at home immediately. The CDC currently recommends isolating for at least five full days from when you tested positive or from the onset of symptoms. After that, you should wear a high-quality mask around others and avoid being around people at high risk for serious illness until at least day 10.

How can I use rapid tests while recovering from COVID-19?

Besides telling you if you have contracted COVID-19, rapid tests can also determine whether you have recovered from the virus and are no longer infectious. If you are still testing positive after isolating for five days, you may want to consider extending your isolation period or at least minimizing time around others. If you took Paxlovid to treat COVID-19 and are experiencing a return of symptoms a few days later, take a rapid test to check if you are once again infectious in a case of Paxlovid rebound.

Rapid tests can also be used to determine if you can stop wearing a mask before day 10. The CDC says if you receive two sequential negative tests 48 hours apart, you can remove your mask. You should continue to wear a mask and test 48 hours apart until receiving two sequential negatives, even if that means going beyond day 10.

Where can I get at-home rapid tests for free?

The federal government ended its program that delivered free at-home tests, but there are still ways for individuals to access free or low-cost tests. If you have private health insurance or Medicare Part B, you can get eight free tests each month. People with Medicaid or CHIP coverage get free at-home tests without cost-sharing in accordance with the American Rescue Plan Act. If you don’t have an insurance plan, you can access free or low-cost tests by visiting a community health center or certain pharmacies.