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How long does it take to get the coronavirus test results

Mahesh went in for his coronavirus test yesterday.  He had been complaining for breathlessness and a feverish feeling ever since and is surprised to find that the coronavirus test result is negative. He calls his family doctor who tells him there is a possibility that what he felt was panic and not actual symptoms, particularly since the test says he does not have the virus.

Prerna has to travel to another country urgently to help her sister set up her new home. She’s going through website after website finding out how much time before she travels she must take her test and whether she has to quarantine herself after and … well it’s giving her a headache. 

Waiting for your coronavirus test results can be a nerve wracking experience, especially if the wait is very long. Many people complain of breathlessness and “a feverish feeling” during this period and quite often this breathlessness and overall manifestation of malaise is a stress response rather than the actual onset of coronavirus. 

Why are timelines so unpredictable? 

Depending on where you opt to do your rest and what kind of test you undertake, it could take either a few minutes or as long as nearly a week to obtain your results. 

Additionally, rising volumes could result in backlogs and the pile up of sames could play spoilsport at labs and clinics. And let’s not forget that clinics themselves might end up short staffed if employees contract the virus and are unable to come to work. 

Different types of tests and their relative turnaround time 

Let’s look at a couple of different tests, how they work and the time taken to deliver results. It wouldn’t be very fair to look only at the turnaround time alone because effectiveness and context must be taken into consideration. 

Antibody tests

Heads up – these can’t tell you if you have Covid-19 right now. They tell you whether you have the antibodies to fight it or not and in a sense tell you if you had previously contracted the virus.

Antibodies are the proteins prepped by your immune system once it learns how to fight and defeat anything that attacks it, such as Covid-19. 

These tests take about 3 days or more to be delivered and they can also only be conducted about three weeks after you have been infected, or after you have had your vaccine. It takes that long for your immune system to develop the right army of soldiers. 

Antigen test – Serological 

Antigen tests also aim to detect protein, but in this case they are looking for protein on the surface of the virus. 

These tests have earned the nickname “rapid tests” because they can indeed be carried out in minutes.

However they are not as effective as we would have liked because when the virus is present in very small amounts, the protein that these tests look to isolate, is also present in small amounts. 

That means that they often come up what what is known as a “false negative” meaning that the test says the virus is not present in your body when in fact, the virus is present in your body in small quantities. 

Mahesh’s doctor might have recommended a second test if Mahesh showed definitive symptoms while also showing a negative test. 

Molecular test – PCR

A molecular test is the most effective coronavirus test. However it is also the one that has the longest turnaround time. 

The molecular test looks to identify the presence of the DNA of the Covid-19 virus and that’s why it is so effective.

In most cases, a molecular coronavirus test results can be obtained within 1 to 3 days.That said, there are rapid versions of these tests too, although the medical fraternity has raised questions about their efficiency in actually detecting the virus. Rapid molecular PCR tests can deliver coronavirus test results within hours.

Despite being considered the best option, even molecular tests come with a few shortfalls

  1. They should be taken within the first 5 days of the onset of symptoms 
  2. They might not be as effective as new strains of the virus emerge because they look to detect a specific DNA. 

Provided Mahesh has done this test, he probably has no reason to worry. 

Some points to consider about timelines

  • Private labs usually commit to faster timelines; you could get your results within a few hours to a day. 
  • Always confirm the turnaround time for coronavirus test results at the lab, hospital, clinic or testing centre that you are visiting.
  • Testing in remote areas with fewer testing centres generally takes longer 
  • Samples might pile up and a backlog could occur when there is a spike in cases and the lablab or clinic is handling a higher than usual number of cases
  • Onsite testing is faster than testing at a hospital where  the test results need to be forwarded to a lab for checking. 
  • Some labs even offer at home sample pick up and 24-hour turnaround time. 

What to do while you wait

  • If you are symptomatic, isolate yourself until the test results confirm or deny the presence of the virus 
  • If you are asymptomatic carry on with your daily schedule, but of course remember to herd basic precautions 
  • If you are asymptomatic but have come in contact with someone who had or has the virus, it is advisable that you avoid contact with seniors, children and other susceptible individuals 
  • If you’re simply getting tested as a travel requirement  there is usually no need for additional  precautions 
  • If you are asymptomatic  but have however travelled to a location with a high number of cases, adhere to basic social distancing norms and keep those whom you interact with informed.

Covid-19 testing and turnaround tips for travelers

Always check that the testing facility is ICMR approved especially if your test certificate is to be valid for travel. 

If you are scheduled to travel abroad, you might  be required to quarantine after you take your test to reduce the chance of infection. This might be asked of you even in cases where to test negative – the idea is to prevent you from having a potentially risky interaction. 

It is advisable to keep a buffer of about 48 hours for your test result to come back but do not go for your test too early because a lot of airports have a strict deadline, like for instance the test may have to be completed a maximum of 72 hours before you travel.

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