Experts say you should isolate if you think you have COVID-19 but can’t get a test.
- The Omicron variant has caused a spike in COVID-19 cases, while there is a shortage of test kits and appointments.
- Experts say if you think you have COVID-19 and can’t get a test, you should behave as if you do have the disease.
- They recommend isolating for at least 5 days and getting extra rest along with drinking plenty of fluids.
- They also say to monitor your symptoms and to seek medical help if you start to feel seriously ill.
You think you might have COVID-19, but you can’t get a test. Now what?
According to the experts, it may be best to assume you have COVID-19 and act accordingly.
“If you live in an area with widespread COVID-19 activity, many public health officials are now advising that you assume that you have COVID-19 and act accordingly. If you have mild symptoms and are otherwise healthy without risk factors, then get plenty of rest and isolate according to local health department guidance,” Dr. Anne Liu, a specialist in infectious diseases at Stanford University in California, told Healthline.
“If you have underlying risk factors, contact your physician to find out whether you might be eligible for any treatments,” she said. “Keep in mind that many of these treatments work best if used earlier in infection. If you start to feel sicker, particularly with shortness of breath or other concerning symptoms, then seek medical attention.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that people who have symptoms of COVID-19 should get tested, as well as people who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
People who are not fully vaccinated with COVID-19 and are prioritized as part of community screening should also get tested, as well as people who aren’t fully vaccinated and have been referred for testing by their workplace, school, healthcare professional, or health department.
Rapid vs. PCR tests
However, rapid antigen tests aren’t always easy to come by and testing appointments aren’t always available.
“Antigen testing picks up cases best if done more than once over several days. Antigen testing may be negative early on, even when symptoms are present,” Liu said. “PCR testing is more sensitive, turns positive sooner, and remains positive longer. But PCR availability is lower and turnaround time on tests is much longer.”
Dr. Dana J. Hawkinson, the medical director of infection prevention and control and an infectious diseases specialist at The University of Kansas Health System, says even if you can’t get tested at the immediate onset of symptoms, it would still be beneficial to try and get tested within a week of symptoms beginning.
“If you can test within 7 days of symptom onset, it would be good to be able to know for sure if you had COVID-19,” Hawkinson told Healthline. “Please understand that getting a PCR test, which is more sensitive, may increase your chance of detecting the virus compared to an antigen test, like what is in the home tests.”
“Typically one may be home and isolated for 5 days from the start of symptoms, then get back out into society with proper mask use,” he said. “It should be noted that if you are able to remain home for longer for those 5 days, that would be that much safer for others. The next thing to do is to continue to seek out testing sites or home tests.”
The CDC recently updated their guidelines to shorten the isolation period for people who have COVID-19.
Under the new guidelines, people with COVID-19 should isolate for 5 full days, regardless of whether they have had symptoms.
People without symptoms can come out of isolation after 5 full days. People with symptoms can come out of isolation after 5 days if they are fever free and see an improvement in symptoms.
People who have had COVID-19 should wear a mask for 10 days any time they are in contact with others.
Many people will be able to manage their COVID-19 infection at home, but experts say it is important to monitor for symptoms that may require medical attention.
“When managing illness at home, continue to drink water and remain hydrated, eat healthy, and keep your nutrition adequate, take Tylenol or ibuprofen to help reduce any fever or body aches, get rest,” Hawkinson said.
“If you feel that those symptoms are unmanageable at home or symptoms worsen or new symptoms start, it may be time to seek medical care,” he said. “Symptoms which might signal that may include new or worsening shortness of breath or chest pain, worsening cough, new or unusual leg or arm pain or swelling, change in your mental status or increasing confusion.”
As well as respiratory symptoms, Liu says many people who have the Omicron variant are also experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms.
Even if symptoms may not warrant a trip to the emergency room, Liu says it is important that people with COVID-19 don’t hesitate in contacting their healthcare professional, as outpatient treatments could be beneficial.
“Have a low threshold to call your physician for advice,” she said. “Most physicians are trying to keep abreast of the rapidly changing landscape of treatment options. Even if you are not sick enough to go to the emergency room, you might benefit from certain outpatient treatments that could reduce your risk of needing hospitalization. Even if you do your own research on treatment options, there is a lot of variability in what is available locally.”