At-home COVID tests: Avoiding common mistakes

How to make the most of at-home rapid COVID-19 tests

Here's how to avoid common mistakes when taking an at-home COVID-19 test.

At-home COVID-19 tests have been in high demand and, recently, in low supply as the nation continues to battle increasing infections.

Now, the Biden administration is offering American households four at-home COVID tests for free to help keep up with demand -- and to help slow virus spread. Click here to sign up for the free at-home tests.

It’s important to know how to use the at-home tests in order to make the most of them. Here are some of the biggest mistakes people make with at-home rapid COVID-19 tests, and how you can avoid them.

Read the directions

This may seem obvious, but it is crucial to read the directions for your at-home test -- even if you’ve done a rapid COVID test before.

Every brand has slightly different instructions, and, in many cases, the timing of certain steps is important for the test’s success.

You should lay everything out and do a dry run of the test while reading the instructions before you even open any of the sealed components.

Related: Is it better to wear an N95 or cloth mask right now?

Best time to test

If you have a limited supply of COVID tests, you’ll want to take the test when you are most likely to receive a reliable answer ... and for that, timing is everything.

At-home rapid tests are the most sensitive during the first week of COVID-19 symptoms. So, if you are sick, do the test right away.

Another important use of the at-home tests is to screen a person after they have been exposed to someone with COVID. But, in many cases, you might not have any symptoms -- here’s where timing is critical: When you’re exposed to a person with COVID, if you are infected, it takes a least a couple of days for the virus to become detectable.

After an exposure, especially if you don’t have any symptoms, you should wait at least three days before testing. If you take a test before then, it is really just a waste, because it’s too early for the virus to be detected.

What if you test negative the first time?

Given how common COVID-19 infections are right now, if you test positive, that result is most likely accurate.

However, rapid COVID tests are less sensitive than PCR COVID tests that are done in a lab.

If your first at-home rapid test gives you a negative result, you are encouraged to take another test about two days later to confirm that you are negative.

The ability to easily do repeat, or serial, testing is one of the benefits that the rapid tests have over PCR tests.

Related: Long COVID symptoms: Researchers find virus hinders cells from generating energy in some people

Testing before events, gatherings

Regardless of whether you have had a known exposure to COVID-19 or have symptoms, there are other circumstances where rapid tests can be useful.

If you are going to have close contact with anyone who is at high risk of severe illness, or you’ll be participating in a group activity with limited masking, it is a good idea to check yourself for COVID to provide an additional layer of reassurance that you aren’t actively infectious at that moment.

Related: Tips to help you avoid getting scammed by someone selling fake masks

About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.