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Comprehensive Guide to COVID-19 Testing Methods: PCR vs. Antigen

Written by Andrew Le, MD

UpdatedMay 29, 2024

As of August 2023, the world has experienced a profound impact from COVID-19, with 768,983,095 confirmed cases and 6,953,743 reported deaths, all of which have been reported to WHO.

This global health crisis has significantly changed how we lead our lives, work, and interact with others. In light of the ongoing pandemic, effective testing for the virus remains paramount to managing its transmission and controlling outbreaks.

In this article, you will learn the different types of COVID-19 tests, focusing on PCR and antigen tests. You will also know their purposes, levels of accuracy, and the recommended timing for getting tested.

Whether you're concerned about your health, a healthcare professional, or simply seeking information on testing options, this guide will provide you with the essential knowledge to make informed decisions about COVID-19 testing.

Testing for Current Infection

When detecting if you currently have a SARS-CoV-2 infection, there are two primary diagnostic tests: Molecular (PCR) and Antigen.

Let's explore how these two testing methods work and what sets them apart in the battle against COVID-19

If the virus's genetic material is detected, the test result is positive for COVID-19.

Sample Collection Methods

There are two common methods for collecting samples for molecular (PCR) tests:

  1. Nasal Swab: This involves inserting a swab about two inches into your nose and swirling it around for a few seconds. Nasal swabs are fast and accurate, making them a popular option for testing.
  2. Saliva Test: In this self-administered test, you'll be shown how to collect a saliva sample into a funnel attached to a tube. It is more comfortable than nasal swabs and can be a suitable alternative for individuals with low saliva production.

Antigen Tests

Antigen or rapid tests detect specific proteins on the virus's surface. They can produce results faster than molecular (PCR) tests, usually within 15 to 30 minutes.

However, they are not as sensitive as molecular tests and may have a higher chance of false-negative results, especially in asymptomatic individuals.

How Antigen Tests Work

During an antigen test, a nasal swab sample is mixed with antibodies that bind to the virus's proteins. If the virus is present in the sample, it will bind to the antibodies, causing a visible colored line to appear on the test, indicating a positive result for COVID-19.

Interpretation of Antigen Test Results

A positive antigen test means the virus is detected and the person has a current COVID-19 infection. However, a negative result does not always rule out infection, especially if you have symptoms or have been in close contact with someone who tested positive.

To confirm negative results, follow-up testing with a PCR test is recommended.

Testing for Past Infection

While antibody tests, also known as serology tests, can detect antibodies in your blood in response to a past COVID-19 infection or vaccination, it's crucial to remember that these tests cannot diagnose a current infection with the virus.

So, how do antibody tests detect past COVID-19 infections or vaccinations, and what do their results indicate?

How Antibody Tests Work

In antibody testing, a blood sample is collected by a finger stick or a blood draw and analyzed for antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2.

Interpretation of Antibody Test Results

A positive antibody test indicates that a person may have antibodies from a past COVID-19 infection or vaccination. However, it cannot tell if someone is infected with the virus or immune to future infections. More research is needed to understand the duration and extent of protection provided by antibodies.

Accuracy and Limitations of COVID-19 Tests

While COVID-19 tests are essential for managing the pandemic, they have limitations. It's essential to understand the accuracy of each type of test to interpret the results correctly.

Molecular (PCR) Test Accuracy

  • Molecular tests (PCR) are highly accurate and the gold standard for detecting current COVID-19 infections.
  • They have a low chance of false-positive results, making them reliable in diagnosing active infections.

Antigen Test Accuracy

  1. Antigen tests are less accurate than PCR tests, especially in asymptomatic individuals.
  2. They have a higher chance of producing false-negative results, meaning you could have the virus despite receiving a negative test result.

Health Warning:

As health officials encourage people to get tested, concerns about the accuracy of specific COVID-19 tests are being raised. Learn more from this report: COVID antigen testing: How accurate is it?

Antibody Test Accuracy

  • Antibody tests are valuable for indicating past infections or immune response post-vaccination.
  • However, they cannot determine if you currently have COVID-19 or are immune to future infections.

Factors Affecting Test Accuracy

  • Test Timing: The timing of the test concerning symptoms or exposure can impact accuracy. Early testing after exposure may result in false negatives.
  • Sample Collection: Proper collection of samples is crucial for accurate results. Incorrect swabbing or handling can lead to false negatives.
  • Test Quality: The quality of the test kit and the laboratory performing the analysis can influence accuracy.
  • Virus Variants: Some tests may have reduced sensitivity to certain virus variants, potentially affecting results.

PCR vs. Antigen

Understanding the key differences between PCR and antigen tests can help you choose the most appropriate test based on your circumstances.

Here's a summary of their specific features:

PCR Tests

  • Gold standard for COVID-19 testing
  • Detect the virus's genetic material (RNA)
  • Can be used with or without symptoms
  • Nasal swab or saliva sample collection
  • Highly accurate but may take 24-72 hours for results

Antigen Tests

  • Produce rapid results within 15-30 minutes
  • Detect specific viral proteins
  • More suitable for symptomatic individuals
  • Nasal swab sample collection
  • Can have higher false-negative rates than PCR tests

When to Get Tested for COVID-19

Timely testing is essential for managing COVID-19 and preventing its spread. Here are key times to consider getting tested:

  1. If You Have Symptoms: Test immediately if you experience COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, fatigue, or body aches.
  2. After Exposure: If you've been in close contact with someone who tested positive, wait at least 5 full days after your exposure before getting tested. If you test negative, consider testing again after 48 hours to be more confident in the result.
  3. Before Events or Visiting High-Risk Individuals: Testing can be helpful before attending gatherings or visiting vulnerable individuals. Ideally, get tested 1-2 days before the event for timely results.
  4. After Travel: If you've recently traveled or plan to travel, testing can help you identify if you acquired the virus during your trip.

Choosing the Right Test for Your Circumstances

Selecting the appropriate COVID-19 test depends on your situation. Here are some guidelines:

If You Have Not Had COVID-19 or Tested Positive in the Last 90 Days:

  • PCR or Antigen Test: PCR and antigen tests are suitable options if you have symptoms or were exposed to the virus.
  • Repeat Testing: If you use an antigen test and receive a negative result, consider following FDA recommendations for repeat testing after 48 hours.

If You Tested Positive for COVID-19 in the Last 90 Days:

  • Within 30 Days: If you have symptoms, use an antigen test and repeat negative tests following FDA recommendations.
  • Within 31-90 Days: If you have symptoms, use an antigen test and repeat negative tests following FDA recommendations. If you don't have symptoms, use an antigen test and repeat negative tests as recommended.

After a positive test result, individuals may continue to test positive for some time. Reinfections can occur within90 days, so consult a healthcare provider if you have any concerns about your circumstances.

Getting Tested

You can get tested for COVID-19 through different methods:

At-Home Tests

  • At-home PCR and antigen tests can be purchased online or at pharmacies and retail stores.
  • Follow the instructions carefully for sample collection and mailing it to a laboratory.
  • At-home tests offer convenience and privacy but may take 2-4 days for results.

Helpful Tips:

  • Check the expiration date of the test before using it.
  • Read all instructions provided with the test carefully in advance.
  • Disinfect the table or countertop where you will take the test before starting.
  • Follow the testing instructions precisely as specified by the manufacturer.
  • After taking the test, properly dispose of the testing materials, ensuring you disinfect the area and wash your hands.
  • Contact a healthcare professional with any questions or concerns about your test results.

Testing Locations

  • Some locations provide low- or no-cost testing for individuals with symptoms or known exposures.
  • Walk-in clinics and urgent care centers may also offer COVID-19 testing services.

Helpful Tips:

There are various resources to help you locate a testing site nearby:

Healthcare Provider

  • Contact your healthcare provider or a local health department for information about testing options and recommendations based on your specific circumstances.

Telemedicine Services

  • Many telemedicine platforms now offer virtual consultations for COVID-19 testing. A healthcare professional can guide you on the appropriate test based on your symptoms and exposure risk.

Follow Public Health Guidelines

COVID-19 testing is just one part of managing the pandemic. Following public health guidelines to protect yourself and others is essential:

  1. Vaccination: Get vaccinated if you are eligible. Vaccines have proven effective in reducing the severity of the disease and preventing hospitalization.
  2. Masks and Social Distancing: Continue wearing masks in crowded settings or where mandated. Maintain physical distance from others, especially if unvaccinated or in high-risk areas.
  3. Hand Hygiene: Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  4. Isolation and Quarantine: Follow guidelines for isolation if you test positive for COVID-19 and quarantine if you've been exposed to the virus.
  5. Stay Informed: Stay updated on COVID-19 developments and follow recommendations from reputable health organizations.
  6. Travel Guidelines: Follow travel guidelines issued by health authorities and destination countries.

The Bottom-line

COVID-19 testing is vital in identifying and managing infections, especially as the pandemic evolves. Molecular (PCR) and antigen tests are the primary methods for detecting current infections, while antibody tests provide information about past infections and immune responses.

Understanding the accuracy and limitations of each test type is crucial for interpreting results correctly.

Remember that testing is just one aspect of controlling the pandemic. Vaccination, following public health guidelines, and practicing good hygiene remain critical in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the health of individuals and communities.

Stay informed, consult healthcare professionals if needed, and prioritize safety for yourself and others. We can overcome this global challenge and move towards a healthier future.


“The world needs huge positive energy to fight against the negative forces. Go to the center of your inner begin and generate that positive energy for the welfare of the humanity.”

Amit Ray, World Peace: The Voice of a Mountain Bird

FAQs on Types of COVID-19 Tests

What types of Covid antigen tests are there?

There are two main types of COVID-19 tests: Molecular tests (like RT-PCR) that detect the virus's genetic material and antigen tests that identify specific proteins from the virus.

Which is better, the RT-PCR test or the antigen test?

The RT-PCR test is more sensitive than the antigen test, but the antigen test is still effective, especially for monitoring infections in close contact with COVID-19 cases. Rapid antigen tests are often used for quick screening in containment zones and healthcare settings.

What is the best COVID antigen test?

One of the best COVID antigen tests has clear results and is easy to use with minimal components. It involves inserting a simple nasal swab about half an inch into your nostril.