You went to a get-together and now you feel sick, or you know someone who got COVID-19. What constitutes an exposure, and when and why should you get tested for COVID-19? Our expert provides all the information you need to know.
So you went to that holiday get-together at your friend’s house and now you’re feeling under the weather. You have the sniffles and you start to panic. Could it be COVID-19? Should you get tested?
Before Googling your symptoms (which won’t give you a definite answer as to whether or not you have the virus), let Dr. Lyn Nuse, MD, specialty medical director of general pediatrics at Atrium Health Levine Children’s guide you on when and why to get a COVID-19 test.
What does “exposure” mean?
Just because your husband’s cousin’s uncle has COVID-19 and your husband was with your uncle 3 weeks ago, doesn’t mean you really need a test. “The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) gives us really clear guidance on what ‘exposure’ means,” says Dr. Nuse. “They define it as being less than 6 feet away, unmasked, for a total of 15 minutes or more – that can be 15 minutes of cumulative time, not all at once – with someone who has a documented positive test for COVID-19.”
Other instances of “close contact” as defined by the CDC include: providing care to someone at home who has COVID-19, having direct physical contact (such as hugging or kissing) with someone with COVID-19, sharing eating/drinking utensils with someone who came down with the virus, or having a person with COVID-19 sneeze or cough on you.
But I don’t feel sick!
If you’ve had an exposure, even if you are symptom-free, you still need to get tested because you have a confirmed exposure and could spread COVID-19 to others before you start feeling symptoms (or you might remain asymptomatic, meaning aren’t experiencing any symptoms).
“If you’ve been exposed, generally – aside from getting a test – you should quarantine at home for 14 days,” Dr. Nuse advises. “If you receive a negative test result after day 7 (if you got tested on day 5 or later) after your known exposure, then you might be able to stop quarantining.”
Some people should also be able to stop quarantining after day 10 with no symptoms. When in doubt, consult with your healthcare provider, who can make the best decision for you based on local conditions and other factors.
“Even if you ‘test out’ of quarantining, you should still stay home as much as possible, wear a mask around other people and observe social distancing guidelines for 14 days, just to make sure you’re not spreading the virus to others,” says Dr. Nuse.
So, when should I get a test?
If you’ve been exposed to someone with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19, even if it was 24 to48 hours before they developed symptoms, you should get tested for COVID-19 – even if you are asymptomatic.
“For example, if you know someone who got sick on a Monday, and you saw them on the Saturday before, that would be within 48 hours of them developing symptoms and would be considered an exposure,” explains Dr. Nuse. “If you saw them the Thursday before, it wouldn’t be considered an exposure.”
When it comes to COVID-19 testing, there are several different options available including rapid tests (which offer results in as little as 15 minutes) and PCR tests (which are more accurate but take longer to provide results). Atrium Health also offers assurance testing for those who need a confirmed negative test before returning to work/school or before travel. Not sure what type of test you need or where to get one? Contact your primary care physician, visit our COVID-19 resource hub online, or call 704-468-8888 to find a nearby Atrium Health facility that offers the test.
“You’ll get the most accurate results on day two to five of your symptoms, if you’re symptomatic,” says Dr. Nuse. “You can schedule an appointment a few days out to hit that optimal testing window if you know when you were exposed. But technically, you can get tested at any time.”
I do actually feel really sick
Unfortunately, many symptoms of COVID-19 look a lot like the flu, allergies, or other ailments like strep or the common cold. To get the fastest treatment for what is actually going on, it’s best to consult your primary care doctor to have your symptoms evaluated. And, to be on the safe side, make sure you quarantine until you get a confirmed negative test or get further instructions from your doctor.
“We’re also offering video visits to anyone with COVID-19 types of symptoms,” adds Dr. Nuse. “You can have a video visit and see a doctor via telehealth, and then you can follow that up with an in-person visit or testing if necessary.” If you have symptoms like fever, chills, headaches, sore throat, congestion, cough, difficulty breathing, or gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms (stomach upset), it’s best to consult your doctor.
Whether or not you have symptoms…
When in doubt, stay home until you can see your doctor. “The information on COVID-19, and even testing, is changing rapidly,” says Dr. Nuse. “It’s difficult to keep up with the changing news, but healthcare providers are on top of it. Let us do the work for you and guide you through the types of tests you may need, and when and where to get them. We want to make it as easy as possible for you to get the care you need, so you can focus on feeling better.”