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What COVID-19 Tests are There and What Does a Positive Mean?

What are the different tests to see whether you have COVID-19 and what does a positive result mean? Does a positive result make me immune?
Zahrah A
12 April 2020

There are many tests to confirm whether a person actually has COVID-19. This may bring some clarity to those of you that are confused in these manic times.

As of now, there are two types of tests. These are diagnostic and serological tests. What's the difference? A diagnostic tests wors by looking for the virus' genetic material - which would be found if you had an active infection. A serological test, on the other hand, looks for antibodies that are produced against the virus - these are found later in the infection and are still present after you've recovered.

Diagnostic Tests

There's a test where a medical professional stick a swab up your nose and reach it all the way back. This works by looking for the virus itself. If you've been tested for COVID-19 via a diagnostic method and have got a negative result, it doesn't necessarily mean you're not infected.

Pedro Piedra, MD has said that "The major issue is often poor quality samples," Getting enough of a sample is difficult, especially under less-than-ideal circumstances. You're advised to talk to your doctor about what your result could mean.


Serology Tests

This type of testing has been getting more attention as of late. Serological tests work by finding antibodies against COVID-19. The specific antibodies for COVID-19 show that the person had been exposed to the disease in the past.

The two types of serological tests are one that looks for IgG antibodies and one that looks for IgM antibodies. IgM antibodies are produced earlier in an infection and are the immune system's first line of defense. IgG antibodies, on the other hand, usually take a while to build up and can be found in the body after the infection is over.

Like diagnostic tests, a negative serological test doesn't mean that you're not infected. “It takes a while to build both types of antibodies, so in an acute case, you wouldn’t detect them, and have a false sense of security,” says Luis Ostrosky, MD, an infectious disease specialist at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston.

Serology Tests Could Hint at Immunity

This is still an idea that needs testing. In theory, if a person tests positive, this could mean that a healthcare worker could safely care for COVID-19 patients and other essential workers can go back to work.

As easy and simple as this idea sounds, there is a lot that we don't know. Some of the unknowns are whether a person can get re-infected with COVID-19 as well as how long this immunity lasts.

If you were to test positive for COVID-19, this doesn't guarantee your normal life back. “You should still have a conversation with your healthcare provider,” Ostrosky says.

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