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How do at-home COVID-19 tests work? Here’s what you need to know.

Published: November 21, 2023

Written by: Ashley Lauretta

Illustration of a young man taking an at-home COVID-19 test in his living room.

Here is your cheat sheet on where to get at-home COVID-19 tests and when and how to use them.

In this article:

Coronavirus infections are still with us. Experts agree we’re going to be living with the presence of the virus for some time to come.1 Better news: We now have more ways to protect ourselves and our communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 testing remains a vital step in managing the spread.2,3 Since November 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized COVID-19 at-home tests as a way to track the disease with the convenience of self-testing in a location of your choice.4

What are COVID-19 symptoms?

If you are experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms — or if you’ve been exposed to someone who has COVID-19 — it’s a good idea to get tested. Typical COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Body aches
  • Congestion
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Headache
  • Loss of smell or taste
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat5

The CDC also recommends that you consider testing if you’ve been exposed to COVID-19 or before coming into contact with someone who is high risk for severe COVID-19 (e.g., the elderly or those with cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease or diabetes).6

Keeping at-home COVID-19 tests on hand is one way to do your part in reducing the spread of coronavirus. Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to get at-home COVID-19 tests, so you can have peace of mind that access to a test is available when you need it.

Left: Illustration of an at-home COVID-19 test kit. Right: Illustration of a man holding a COVID-19 at-home test that is giving a false result.

Frequently asked questions about at-home COVID-19 tests

The circulation of COVID-19 remains an active public health threat.7 Please check the CDC for the most current recommendations and guidelines.

Do at-home COVID-19 tests expire?

Yes, at-home COVID-19 tests have expiration dates, and it’s important that you pay attention to them. The FDA typically authorizes a shelf life of roughly four to six months.8,9 But that shelf life may be extended based on new data.10

You can check on the FDA site for updated expiration dates, including expiration dates for CVS Health® at-home COVID-19 test kits.11

“If you use an expired test, you may not get an accurate result — most likely false negative — but it isn’t predictable, so it is best to avoid using an expired test,” explains Michael Chang, MD, UTHealth Houston pediatric infectious disease expert affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.12,13

Does insurance cover at-home COVID-19 testing?

During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, most health insurance carriers were required to cover the cost of eight at-home COVID-19 tests per month.14 After this ended on May 11, 2023, insurers and their clients could make different coverage decisions based on the individual plan’s needs. Check with your insurance company to see what coverage for at-home tests may still be in effect.15

If you’re uninsured, you may also be able to receive free testing at community-based test sites near you.16

Is it possible to get a false negative or false positive result?

Yes. A false negative or false positive is possible.17 You might test negative on an at-home COVID-19 test even if you are carrying the virus and whether or not you have symptoms.18

In general, at-home COVID-19 tests can pick up an infection roughly 80 percent of the time.19 If you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and get a negative test result, the CDC recommends testing again in a day or two.20

Wondering what a positive at-home COVID-19 test looks like? You should refer to the instructions that came with your test, because readings may differ brand to brand. Many popular tests will show one line for a negative and two lines for a positive.21 Keep in mind, even a faint line in the test field means positive.22

How do at-home COVID-19 tests work?

All COVID-19 at-home test kits come with easy-to-follow instructions. Typically, a kit will provide a swab that you circle around the inside of your nostril to collect a sample; a solution to mix with that sample; and a testing strip that produces colored lines that map to results. Manufacturers’ instructions vary, so it’s important you follow instructions closely to get an accurate result.23

What’s the difference between types of at-home COVID-19 test brands?

Most at-home COVID-19 rapid tests are antigen tests, which look for the presence of viral proteins.24 Check the product label to ensure the test is appropriate for you or the person you’re shopping for. (For example, most at-home COVID-19 rapid test brands are approved for use in kids ages two and older [when an adult collects the sample] but not all are.25) According to Dr. Chang, most are nasal swabs with only minor differences in the time to get results.

Some at-home tests are molecular tests, which work in a similar way to laboratory-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. By amplifying bits of genetic material, they are typically considered more sensitive than antigen tests.  

In total, there are more than 20 at-home COVID-19 tests currently authorized by the FDA.

What’s the difference between at-home tests and in-clinic testing?

The difference is based less on where you get the test and more on what type of test you get, says Dr. Chang. With some exceptions, at-home COVID-19 tests are typically antigen tests. Laboratory tests can be either antigen tests or PCR tests. PCR tests are generally more accurate and better at detecting COVID-19 before you are symptomatic.26

Dr. Chang notes that even if a clinic offers antigen testing, it’s possible the provider may be more skilled at collecting the sample, leading to a more accurate result. Keep in mind, laboratory results (especially for PCR tests) can take several days.27

When should you take an at-home COVID-19 test?

If you’ve been directly exposed to COVID-19 and don’t have symptoms, it’s still recommended that you take an at-home COVID-19 test five days after that exposure.28 If negative, take an additional test 48 hours after the first test.29,30 Taking more than one test is advised by both the FDA and the CDC.31 “The lower sensitivity of the at-home antigen tests means that sometimes you need multiple tests to be sure that you are truly negative,” notes Dr. Chang.

If you do have COVID-19 symptoms, the same protocol applies: Take a test and, if negative, follow up 48 hours later.32 If any of your at-home COVID-19 tests are positive, you should follow the CDC’s guidelines for masking, distancing and isolation precautions.

Where can you buy an at-home COVID test?

You can find a variety at-home COVID-19 tests at most drugstores, including both in store and online through CVS Pharmacy.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.