How Effective and Accurate are At-Home COVID-19 Test Kits?

Wondering how effective and accurate are at-home COVID-19 tests? Rapid at-home COVID-19 tests have an overall accuracy of 95 percent. These tests are nearly 95% accurate at detecting positive results and 98% effective at detecting negative results.

The demand for at-home tests is on the rise due to new variants and higher infection rates. While some U.S. states like Colorado offer free online ordering of at-home tests, demand is still driving people to buy tests at local stores or from online vendors.

Plans are currently in process to reimburse U.S. residents for the costs of at-home tests and put the infrastructure in place to ship to everyone who wants to order kits for free. This article will review what at-home tests are when to use them, and their advantages.

What is the Rapid COVID Test?

The rapid COVID test differs from traditional PCR or polymerase chain reaction tests. PCR tests are administered at most government testing centers and healthcare facilities. These tests look for the genetic material contained in the COVID-19 virus.

PCR tests are sent to a lab and it usually takes a few days to get your results back. When testing demand is high, you could end up waiting longer than a couple of days.

Rapid COVID tests check for antigens, which are found on the surface of the virus. With a rapid at-home test, you’ll get results after 15 minutes and the nasal swab process is not as invasive or uncomfortable.

A rapid COVID test comes with instructions, information about the test, collection tubes and caps, test cassettes, capsules of liquid buffer solutions, a tube stand, and nasal swabs. Similar to PCR tests, a rapid COVID test will show a positive or negative result in most cases.

There is the possibility you’ll get an invalid test result. If this happens, you’ll need to retest.

When and How to Use a COVID-19 Rapid Antigen Self-Test Kit?

You can use a COVID-19 rapid antigen self-test kit at home in the following situations:

➔ You’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
➔ You’ve been exposed to someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19. You should wait at least 5 days before your test, according to current CDC guidelines.
➔ If your first test result (either PCR or rapid antigen) was invalid.
➔ If you’re required to get a test due to stipulations related to work, mandates, international travel, or entry into public spaces.
➔ You want to confirm you’re negative before spending time with people who are vulnerable to developing severe cases of COVID-19.

    In most cases, you should not use a rapid antigen self-test kit if you’re not experiencing symptoms. When you’ve been exposed, the best thing to do is to get a traditional PCR test 5 days after.

    To use rapid antigen tests, you’ll need to follow the included instructions carefully. Generally speaking, you’ll use each swab to collect a sample from both sides of your nose.

    The samples you collect on the swabs will mix with the buffer solution or stabilizing liquid. You’ll place the mixture on the test cassettes and wait 15 to 20 minutes. Rapid antigen tests will always show a pink line after the C if the test is valid. This is the control line.

    What the Results Mean

    If you do not see a result for the control line, you’ll need to collect another sample and test again with a different kit. Your test result will be positive if there is also a pink line for the test line, which is labeled with the letter T. Even if the T line is faint, it’s still a positive result.

    If you have a pink C line, but nothing for the T line, your COVID-19 test result is negative. Some test kits have a smartphone app you can load and access your test result from. This makes it easier to show a negative test result for cruise ship travel or to an HR department.

    Does At-Home COVID-19 Test Detect the Omicron Variant?

    Early data does show at-home COVID-19 tests do detect the Omicron variant, in addition to other variants like Delta. If you are concerned about a particular brand or test’s ability to detect the Omicron variant, you can check online FAQ sections or contact customer service.

    At-home COVID-19 tests work best at detecting variants when a person is experiencing symptoms. Therefore, asymptomatic individuals infected with the Omicron variant may get a false negative result.

    However, even PCR tests can produce false-negative results under certain circumstances. For instance, if you use nasal sprays 30 minutes before someone collects your sample.

    In some cases, if you eat, drink, or chew gum 10 minutes before your sample gets collected, you’ll get either a false positive or negative.

    With at-home tests, be sure to follow all recommendations and instructions included in the kit. Even though these tests can detect Omicron, there have been some reports that it may be more difficult for the tests to pick up an infection in individuals with minor symptoms.

    In addition, a few at-home tests are not as good or sensitive at detecting Omicron. This is why it’s important to check with the manufacturer of the brand you’re using. Brands like Canopus, however, are sensitive to the Omicron variant.

    Can an At-Home COVID-19 Test Be Used for Travel?

    In some cases, yes. You’ll want to check with the airline, cruise line, or other related entity to verify the test you take is valid for travel. While this is the best course of action, you can also look up information about rapid tests and travel on the CDC website.

    The CDC lists the following criteria that home COVID-19 tests must meet:

    ➔ Must be FDA-authorized for emergency use or authorized by an appropriate national agency or authority. If you travel outside the country and need a negative test to come back to the U.S., check with the appropriate government agency in the host country.
    ➔ Testing procedures must be aligned with a manufacturer’s telehealth services or telehealth services administered by an affiliate of the manufacturer.
    ➔ Your identity and sample collection must be confirmed by the telehealth services provider.
    ➔ The test report must meet CDC guidelines and air carriers have to be able to verify the person’s identity and test result.

      What if You Get a Negative Test Result but Have Symptoms?

      You may need to get a second test a few days after your first one. Some people try another at-home test while others go in for a PCR test. The recommendation is that you contact your primary healthcare provider and describe your symptoms.

      Your provider can advise whether you should re-test or continue to isolate until symptoms like fever have gone away. If you have underlying conditions that put you at risk or you’re experiencing severe symptoms, your doctor may advise you to go to the emergency room.

      However, if you do not get another test, you should adhere to CDC guidelines. This includes isolating until it’s been 24 hours since your fever subsided, your other symptoms are getting better, and it’s been 10 days since the onset of your symptoms.

      It’s also recommended you wear a mask around others and in public indoor spaces for a specified number of days. The number of days will depend on your vaccination status, including whether you’ve had a booster shot.

      You may also wish to test for the flu or other viruses that can produce symptoms that are similar to COVID-19. Your primary health care provider can either administer these tests or advise whether they believe you have another virus.

      Do At-Home COVID-19 Tests Expire?

      Yes, at-home tests do have an expiration date. You should find it printed on the box, but at-home tests are usually good for 6 months after the manufacture date. If you’re unsure about the expiration date, contact the manufacturer.

      There may be a serial or production batch number on the box they can look up to verify when the test expires.

      Can I Use At-Home COVID-19 Tests if I’m Vaccinated?

      Regardless of your vaccination status, you can use rapid antigen home tests. Some variants, such as Omicron, have led to breakthrough infections. Individuals who are fully vaccinated and boosted have gotten infected with the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

      Similar to previous variants and the original virus strain, vaccinated people are more likely to be asymptomatic. However, some do go on to develop symptoms.

      If you’ve been vaccinated and are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, go ahead and use a rapid antigen test to confirm whether you are positive or negative.

      How Many At-Home Tests are in One Kit?

      Some brands contain 2 rapid antigen tests in a single kit. At-home tests kits ordered from state or national governments might contain up to 4 tests in one kit. When ordering, you can verify with the manufacturer or government authority how many tests you can expect to receive.

      Are At-Home COVID-19 Tests Uncomfortable?

      Since you only have to insert a half-inch to three-fourths of an inch of the nasal swab, at-home tests can be more comfortable than PCR tests. However, you could still experience some degree of discomfort.

      Individuals with inflamed nasal passages from autoimmune conditions or allergies might experience more discomfort than others. But you have full control over the collection sample process, unlike a PCR test.

      Is it Possible to Get an Inaccurate Result?

      Whether you take a PCR or at-home rapid antigen test, there is a slight possibility of getting a false positive or false negative. Inaccurate results can happen for numerous reasons, including not complying with instructions.

      However, at-home and PCR tests are highly accurate on average. If you follow all instructions and recommendations, the chances of getting a false negative or false positive are significantly lower than getting an accurate result.

      If you suspect your result is inaccurate, consult with your primary healthcare provider or retest within 24 hours.  

      What if I Test Positive and Live with Others?

      Individuals who test positive should make arrangements to isolate themselves from others if they are unvaccinated, according to current CDC guidelines. Those directly exposed to you should also try to get tested within 5 days of exposure if they don’t have symptoms.

      If they’ve already developed symptoms, they should test as soon as possible. You can quarantine yourself by staying in a bedroom or room by yourself and using a separate bathroom.

      You and others in your household should also take precautions, including mask-wearing when around each other. Being diligent about sanitizing and washing your hands is also important. But if you or your household members’ symptoms worsen, get to an ER or hospital right away.

      If someone else in the household is caring for you while you’re sick, mask-wearing and sanitization are even more critical. Limit as much exposure and direct contact as you can. Use at-home tests to verify negative or positive results if symptoms develop.

      How Do I Dispose of At-Home Test Materials?

      Luckily, the samples you collect and the test materials are not considered biohazards. You do not need to follow any special disposal procedures. You can throw away any leftover materials in your household trash.

      However, you may want to dispose of the test and samples in a sealed container or trash bag if you have pets or young children. Some people keep a separate trash can in the house and in the garage or outside.

      You can move the trash bag to the can outside to keep the test materials away from pets and children.

      The answer to how effective and accurate are at-home COVID-19 test kits is that they’re highly accurate and effective. While at-home tests are slightly more accurate at detecting negative results, accuracy percentages are still 95 or higher.

      That said, it’s best to use at-home tests if you’ve already developed COVID-19 symptoms. These include a fever, cough, sore throat, or runny nose. Depending on your vaccination status and the variant, your symptoms may be mild.

      However, at-home tests are a convenient way to get accurate and fast results.