Learn about COVID-19 testing

Last updated September 15, 2022.

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Stock image: PCR test box
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This webpage has information about different types of COVID-19 tests, what test results mean, and what to do after you get your test result. 

Looking for a test? Visit our Find a COVID-19 test webpage.

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Why get tested

It is important to layer strategies to protect ourselves, loved ones, and community from COVID-19. In Colorado, it’s easy to get a free, fast, and safe COVID-19 test. By getting tested, Coloradans can help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Testing is also essential to get lifesaving COVID-19 medicine. If you test positive or think you might have COVID-19, you may be able to get medicine to help you recover. This medicine works best if it’s taken within a few days of when you first felt symptoms or tested positive. It’s important to get medicine fast to lower your risk of serious illness. Learn more about medicine for COVID-19.

 

Who should get tested

Anyone who wants a test should get one. 

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, which can feel like a cold, you should get tested as soon as possible, even if you’ve received all recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Follow instructions on how to isolate until you feel better.

If you have been around someone who has COVID-19, you should get tested at least five full days after you were exposed, even if you have received all recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.Quarantine is no longer required for the general public following an exposure. (Some people may need to quarantine depending on where they live or work.) 

However, you should still take precautions following your exposure, including wearing a mask when around others, avoiding places where you cannot wear a mask, and taking extra precautions if you may be around others at high risk for severe disease. You should also monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 for a full 10 days following your exposure. If you start to feel symptoms, take a test and isolate while you wait for results.

You may need to test before and/or after traveling. Check CDC’s travel guidance for more information.

 

What to do if you test positive

If you test positive for COVID-19, follow instructions on how to isolate

You may be able to get treatment to help you recover from COVID-19. This can help keep you from getting seriously sick and keep you out of the hospital. Learn more about treatment for COVID-19.

If you used an at-home test, you can report your positive result using our web portal.

If you have Exposure Notifications enabled on your phone, report your positive result in the service to anonymously alert your recent close contacts that they were exposed.

Federal law requires up to two weeks paid leave for those who work for employers with fewer than 500 employees (though some employers with 50 or fewer employees may be exempt). The Colorado Health Emergency Leave with Pay Rules (“Colorado HELP Rules”) adds coverage for workers as well.

There are many resources available to help you if you need to isolate, including personal financial help and help with getting food.

 

Types of COVID-19 tests 

There are many types of COVID-19 tests. 

Some tests tell you if you are currently infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. These tests are often called viral or diagnostic tests. Other tests tell you if you may have been infected in the past. These tests are often called serologic or antibody tests. They use a blood sample to test for antibodies or cells from your immune system.

Some tests must be sent to a lab to get results. Other tests can be taken at a local clinic, pharmacy, or at home without being sent to a lab.

Types of viral tests 

Molecular-based/PCR testing

  • A molecular amplification test looks for genetic material from the COVID-19 virus. PCR tests are a type of molecular test. A lab-based PCR test is one of the most reliable and accurate ways to test for COVID-19. There are other molecular tests that are not called PCR. 
  • These tests may also be called Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests, or NAATs, and are often performed in a laboratory. 
  • Tests performed in a lab are called lab-based tests. However, some of these tests can be performed at the point of care (a clinic, pharmacy, or at home).

Antigen/rapid testing

  • An antigen test can quickly detect pieces of proteins from the COVID-19 virus. 
  • Rapid at-home tests that are available over the counter are usually antigen tests.
  • This test type is similar to a rapid flu test. It usually requires swabbing your nose. Most antigen tests give you results in about 15 minutes.
  • Learn more about how to use an at-home antigen test.
  • Learn more about self-testing from CDC.
Types of serologic tests

Antibody testing

  • An antibody test is a blood test that looks for antibodies. It can detect the body’s immune response to the infection caused by the virus, rather than detecting the virus itself. 
  • While these tests can detect previous exposure to COVID-19, they can’t tell if someone is currently infected and able to spread the virus to others. It is not recommended to use these tests to find out if you currently have COVID-19. 
  • More information about serological testing can be found in CDC’s Interim Guidelines for COVID-19 Antibody Testing.

Other immune testing

  • Other immune tests, such as t cell tests, use blood samples to look for immune response cells in your blood. These tests can detect the body’s immune response to the infection caused by the virus, rather than detecting the virus itself. 
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Taking a rapid test

  • You can get free FDA-authorized tests from a local distribution site. You can also purchase rapid COVID-19 tests from many retail pharmacies. If you have health insurance, you may be able to seek reimbursement for the cost of the test
  • Double check the expiration date of your test. The FDA extended the expiration dates of many tests based on new information showing these tests continue to effectively detect COVID-19 for longer periods. If your test has expired, it may actually still be usable. Check the expiration date on the box against our list of extended expiration dates.
  • Follow the instructions for storage and use that came with your test. 
  • If you live or work in a high risk setting, such as a residential care facility, or a correctional facility, refer to the guidance for your specific setting when interpreting test results.

 

What to do once you have your rapid test result

After you have taken a rapid test, it may be best in some circumstances to take another test to confirm your result.

Some rapid tests are designed to be used one after the other (also known as serial testing). Follow repeat testing instructions as indicated on the test packaging or consider taking a second test 24 to 48 hours after the first if you have multiple tests available. If you test negative multiple times in a row, it is more likely that you are not infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Some people who take a rapid test may wish to take a lab-based test as well to confirm their results. Rapid tests may rarely result in false negatives or false positives, though this is less likely when serial testing is used. Taking a more sensitive test can help you confirm that you do or do not have COVID-19.

Consider whether or not you have symptoms, whether you’ve recently had close contact with someone who has COVID-19, and the local COVID-19 community level when deciding whether or not to retest. 

Use the chart below to find out if retesting is recommended for you. If you need to retest, you should get a PCR test within 48 hours of your rapid test.

Do I need another test?

 

COVID-19 risk level

Rapid Antigen Test Result 
(e.g., BinaxNow, iHealth, etc.)

Lower risk

At least one risk factor

  • Symptoms
  • Recent exposure to COVID-19
  • Local outbreak
  • Medium or high community level

Positive

You may have COVID-19 even if you don’t have symptoms, but it is less likely if you had no recent exposure and community levels are low. If your rapid test came back positive and you are at low risk, we recommend confirming your test result with a more sensitive PCR test. 

Find a testing site near you

If your PCR test is POSITIVE, you have COVID-19 and need to begin isolation
If your PCR test is NEGATIVE, you do not have COVID-19 and do need to isolate.

Getting a lab-based test is not necessary. This positive result means you have COVID-19. You should isolate yourself away from others.

Negative

Getting a lab-based test is not necessary. You likely do not have COVID-19. However, you may take another rapid antigen test 48 hours later to confirm your negative result.

If you have symptoms, it is possible that you had a false negative on your rapid test and have COVID-19. We recommend getting a lab-based test to confirm your rapid test results.

Find a testing site near you

If your PCR test is POSITIVE, begin isolation.
If your PCR test is NEGATIVE, you do not need to isolate. If you are sick with another illness, we recommend staying home until you feel better.

 

COVID-19 testing for children: tips for parents

Children of all ages can get tested for COVID-19. However, some tests and providers may only be authorized to test children above a certain age. 

All 22 of our free community testing sites test children of all ages, including babies. Pre-registration is strongly recommended before arriving at the testing site. These testing sites use laboratory tests, which means they collect samples and send them to a lab to see if they contain genetic material from the COVID-19 virus. Getting results may take a few days. Laboratory tests can take either a sample from the nose (nasal swab) or from the mouth (saliva sample).

As of now, no rapid at-home (antigen) tests have been authorized by the FDA for use in children under two years of age. Parents of children under 14 years of age should help their child use the test kit. Children under 14 should not use rapid test kits on their own. If you have rapid tests in your home, make sure to store them safely away from the reach of children. The liquid solution included in the kit is not intended for consumption or contact with the skin. It can be harmful if swallowed or if it comes in contact with the skin or the eyes. 

If you are taking your child to get tested for COVID-19, support them by helping them prepare. The best way to prepare your child for testing is explaining what they can expect at the appointment. This video can help you learn how to prepare your child for a nasal swab test.