COVID-19 Testing: What Is the PCR Test?

The PCR test is one of the most dependable options.

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Your doctor just told you it’s time to get tested for COVID-19. They’ve ordered a PCR test, but what does that even mean?

A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, is a viral test that tells you if you currently have COVID-19. It is considered the “gold standard” of testing because it is the most accurate and reliable test. It’s also a quick and simple test, often taking just a few seconds to administer.

How the PCR Test Works

There are three kinds of PCR tests you can take:

  • Nasal: The swab collects a mucus sample from your nasal cavity.
  • Throat: The swab collects a sample from the back of your throat.
  • Spit: You give a sample of your saliva.

In all of these cases, a sample is collected via a long, flexible stick that looks like a giant Q-tip. The tester then sends it to a lab, where a lab technician receives it and tests it for genetic material of SARS-CoV-2. This is the virus that causes COVID-19.

If the PCR test detects genetic material of SARS-CoV-2, you will get a positive result. If this genetic material is not present, you will get a negative result.

Who and When Should You Get Tested

You may think it’s okay not to get tested because you aren’t experiencing any symptoms. However, it is possible to have COVID-19 but not have any symptoms at all. This is called asymptomatic infection.

In other words, having symptoms isn’t the only reason to get a PCR test. You should consider getting tested if you:

  • Are having symptoms of COVID-19
  • Have been within six feet of someone for 15 minutes or more who has tested positive for COVID-19 (this is known as “close contact”)
  • Have high exposure to others at work or in your social life

Timeline and Results

After your test, you can expect to get your results back in two to three days, on average. In some cases, you may get results on the same day. Rapid PCR tests are available, but they are not as common as rapid antigen tests.

It is important to note that you should get tested five to 10 days after exposure. If you test yourself too soon, you might come up with a false negative. This means that you may very well have the virus, it just hasn’t had a chance to produce enough of a presence in your body for the test to pick it up.

Talk to your primary care physician if you have any questions about testing or COVID-19. It is up to everyone to help flatten the curve. Wear a mask, wash your hands, socially distance, and get tested on a regular basis. Learn about other types of COVID-19 tests here.