Diagnosis

If you have symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019, known as COVID-19, or you've been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, contact your healthcare team. Let them know if you've had close contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

In the United States, at-home COVID-19 tests are available. Free tests can be mailed to U.S. addresses, or you can purchase tests in stores, pharmacies or online. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, also known as the FDA, approves or authorizes the tests. On the FDA website, you can find a list of the tests that are validated and their expiration dates. You also can check with your healthcare professional before buying a test if you have any concerns.

When taking a test at home, read the directions that come with the test carefully. Follow the instructions exactly to get as accurate a result as possible.

COVID-19 tests also are available from healthcare professionals, some pharmacies and clinics, or at community testing sites.

Here are some guidelines for when to take a COVID-19 test:

  • If you have COVID-19 symptoms, test for the illness right away.
  • If you were exposed to the COVID-19 virus but don't have symptoms, wait at least five days after exposure then test.
  • If you have symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 30 days, you can test again. But if you were just exposed to the coronavirus and don't have symptoms, you don't need to test.

Also, testing before an event or contact with people at high risk of serious illness helps prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

COVID-19 tests use a sample taken from your nose or throat, or a sample of saliva.

Two types of tests can help diagnose COVID-19.

  • Molecular tests. These tests look for genetic material from the COVID-19 virus.

    Polymerase chain reaction tests, shortened to PCR tests, are molecular tests. You may also see this type of test called an NAAT test, short for nucleic acid amplification test.

    PCR tests are more accurate than the other type of COVID-19 test, called an antigen test. PCR tests may be done at home. But they are much more likely to be done by a healthcare professional and processed in a lab.

  • Antigen tests. These tests look for viral proteins called antigens.

    Antigen tests also may be called rapid COVID-19 tests or at-home COVID-19 tests. These tests are useful if you need a quick result.

    Antigen tests are reliable and accurate, but they are less accurate than PCR tests. This is especially true if you don't have symptoms. If you take an antigen test and are negative for COVID-19, take another antigen test after 48 hours to get the most accurate result.

Understanding test results

If you have a positive COVID-19 PCR or antigen test, you almost certainly have COVID-19. Another test isn't needed.

If you get a negative PCR test, you most likely do not have COVID-19.

If you have a negative antigen test, the FDA recommends that you repeat an antigen test two days after the first test. With or without symptoms, repeating the test helps get the correct diagnosis.

If you test positive, call a healthcare professional immediately to find out what options are available.

Preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus while sick

To prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus to others, stay home and apart from anyone you live with for at least five days. If you have a weakened immune system, you will likely need to isolate for longer. How long depends on your symptoms and personal health history. Your healthcare professional can advise you on what's best in your situation.

If you must be around others, a face mask helps lower the spread of this coronavirus. During this time, try not to share things like cups or towels, and use a separate bathroom and bedroom. It can help to get more airflow in your home as well.

After five days of isolation, many people can go back to being physically with others. But listen to the advice of your healthcare professional. Wearing a mask for five days after isolation can help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Treatment

Many people with COVID-19 recover with rest, plenty of fluids and care that manages symptoms. Medicine you can get without a prescription can help, such as:

  • Fever reducers.
  • Pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
  • Cough syrup or medicine.

If you are at high risk of serious COVID-19 illness, your healthcare professional may suggest medicine to prevent mild illness from getting worse. These medicines can include nirmatrelvir and ritonavir (Paxlovid), remdesivir (Veklury) or molnupiravir (Lagevrio).

Paxlovid and Lagevrio are taken by mouth as pills. Veklury is given through a needle in a vein.

If you're very ill, you may need to be treated in the hospital.

Treatment for serious COVID-19 illness

For people who are in the hospital for COVID-19 care, care is given based on a person's immune system response and the need for oxygen support.

Added oxygen may be given through a tube in the nose. Some people may need to have a tube placed in their airway to push air into the lungs. That's called mechanical ventilation. In very severe situations, a machine called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, also known as ECMO, can be used to mimic the function of the heart and lungs.

Medicines for severe COVID-19 may be remdesivir, baricitinib (Olumiant) and tocilizumab (Actemra), or a corticosteroid such as dexamethasone.

Baricitinib is a pill. Tocilizumab is an injection. Dexamethasone may be either a pill or given through a needle in a vein.

Another option may be blood donated by people who have recovered from COVID-19, called convalescent plasma. The blood is processed to remove blood cells, leaving behind a liquid called plasma that has immune system proteins called antibodies. Convalescent plasma with high antibody levels may be used to help people with a weakened immune system recover from COVID-19.

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Lifestyle and home remedies

If you have COVID-19, it's important to get plenty of rest, drink fluids and keep an eye on your symptoms. Medicines you can get without a prescription can help manage pain, fever or cough.

If you have COVID-19 and are staying separate from others, try to keep busy and help your body clear out the infection. Some things that might help are:

  • Eat healthy meals.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Relaxation exercises.
  • Do activities you enjoy.
  • Connect with friends and family, such as with phone or video calls.

People who have COVID-19 or care for someone with the illness may feel new or worse symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. If you or a loved one need help with managing the stress of illness, isolation or caregiving, contact your healthcare professional. Consider asking for a referral to a mental health professional.

Related information

Preparing for your appointment

To be treated for COVID-19, you may start by seeing your healthcare professional. Or you may be referred immediately to a specialist trained in treating infectious diseases.

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

When you make the appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do in advance. Make a list of:

  • Your symptoms, including any that seem unrelated to the reason for your appointment.
  • Your recent travels, including any international travels.
  • Key personal information, including major stresses, recent life changes and family medical history.
  • All medicines, vitamins or other supplements you take, including the doses.
  • Questions to ask your doctor.

Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given. Bring only one or two people. Check before you go to the appointment, as your hospital or clinic may have visitor restrictions.

Some basic questions to ask your health care team include:

  • How likely is it that COVID-19 is causing my symptoms?
  • What are other possible causes for my symptoms?
  • What tests do I need?
  • What course of action do you recommend?
  • Are there restrictions I need to follow?
  • Should I see a specialist?

What to expect from your doctor

Your health care professional is likely to ask you several questions, such as:

  • When did your symptoms begin?
  • Where have you traveled recently?
  • Who have you been in close contact with?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
Feb. 21, 2024
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