PCR vs Rapid COVID Tests: When Is the Right Time for Each?

With COVID-19 concerns still looming, testing for the virus now seems as normal as having routine blood work done. Certain occupations require regular testing, while some employers require proof of a negative COVID test to return to work after being out sick. Air travel, vacations and gatherings are just a few other reasons people have the need for COVID testing. Whatever the reason for needing testing, you still have to figure out if rapid tests or PCR will best satisfy the requirements. Keep reading “PCR vs Rapid COVID Tests: When Is the Right Time for Each?” to discover when the right time for each type of test is.

PCR Test

When considering a PCR vs rapid test, it’s important to understand the difference between the two tests. The PCR test is considered to be more reliable as it can pick up on small amounts of the coronavirus in the body. So if you think you may have been in close contact with an infected person, a PCR test is the best choice if the contact was very recent.

PCR tests are best for early detection because they can detect the virus when someone is most contagious. That is usually before Covid symptoms appear. This also means that after a person is no longer contagious and the body is shedding the virus, that person is very likely to still test positive using a PCR test. Earlier detection can help your doctor decide on a course of treatment as well as help you to pinpoint who you may have had close contact with nearest the onset of the coronavirus. 

Rapid COVID Test

Rapid tests are also called self-tests or antigen tests. Although they’re not as sensitive as the PCR, they are pretty accurate in detecting the virus once it has replicated enough times in the body. While considering PCR vs rapid tests, the best time to take a rapid test is after you’ve had COVID for a few days and you want to know if you are still contagious. Being infected means that your body is shedding the virus, however shedding the virus does not mean you are still at risk of infecting other individuals.

The best time to take a rapid antigen test is five days or more after coming down with symptoms or after the end of the five-day isolation period. According to the CDC, persons who test positive with a rapid test on day five should continue isolation and test again on day 10.

PCR vs Rapid Test

As you see, there is value in both tests. Which test you choose will vary according to who is ordering the test and your reason for testing. If you’re testing due to close contact or attending a gathering, the PCR is better suited for the task. And if you’ve already been infected or are self-isolating, then a rapid test will do just fine. Keep in mind that when choosing a rapid test, that not all rapid tests are created equal. Some are less accurate than others due to their manufacturing. 

It’s true that the rapid tests are inferior to the PCR tests, but both serve a purpose. If you’re looking for the best test to return to work, the rapid test is better, but many employers are requiring negative PCR test results. In this case, contact your HR representative and heighten the issue. Because a lot can happen with the coronavirus in the course of two or three days, it may be in your best interest to have at least two rapid tests on hand.