Fact: After starting in China, more cases of novel coronavirus have been reported in the U.S. And, if you develop a fever or upper respiratory symptoms, it’s only natural to wonder if you ~might~ be dealing with a case of the virus.
That raises a huge question: At what point should you actually get tested for this type of coronavirus, which causes the illness COVID-19? And how do the tests work, exactly? Here’s everything you need to know about getting tested for novel coronavirus.
What are the symptoms of this type of coronavirus again?
Many people who contract the virus come down with symptoms that are similar to the common cold, while others might not even know they have novel coronavirus because they’re asymptomatic, says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Some people can develop more severe cases of the virus.
In general, these are the symptoms of novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Shortness ofbreath
Yup, the symptoms are kind of vague and can easily be mistaken for symptoms of the common cold or flu (both of which are still much more common at this point). People with a more severe case of novel coronavirus could also experience “extreme” weakness, a fever that won’t quit, and lethargy, says Dr. Adalja.
At what point should you call your doctor?
The CDC specifically recommends that you ring your doctor if you have a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19—or if you live in or have recently traveled from an area with an ongoing spread of novel coronavirus.
Picking up the phone and calling, rather than heading straight to your doctor’s office, is important here, says infectious disease expert David Cennimo, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “The phone discussion will allow for triage,” he says. “Maybe you do not really need to be seen.” Calling first also means that, when doctors think that someone may indeed have COVID-19, they can put precautions in place before they visit the office to minimize their odds of potentially infecting others
Will your doctor test you if they tell you to come in?
Not necessarily. “Having symptoms is not enough,” says Rajeev Fernando, M.D., an infectious disease expert in Southampton, New York. Supplies of test kits are limited in the U.S., he points out, and if you haven’t recently traveled, haven’t been in contact with someone with a known case of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, or aren’t in an area where novel coronavirus has been detected, your doctor may decide you don’t need to be tested.
Also, we’re still in cold and flu season, and at the moment, it’s still more likely that you’ll have one of those illnesses over this type of coronavirus if you have symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, Dr. Fernando says.
Your doctor may also decide not to test you if they suspect you might have novel coronavirus but your symptoms aren’t that bad. “At some point [in the future], it’s just going to be ‘Yes, you have a clinical diagnosis of novel coronavirus,’” Dr. Adalja says. “Since we don’t have antiviral medication for this type of coronavirus, it can be hard to justify testing with the scarcity of tests we have right now. Doctors don’t want to clog up the limited labs that can test for novel coronavirus with every person who is demanding a test.”
While there currently are a limited number of tests for COVID-19, that could change. Some government officials, including New York City mayor Bill De Blasio, have asked the CDC to green-light tests from private companies to make them more widely available.
Per the CDC, doctors should “use their judgment” to determine whether patients should be tested. Those decisions should be based on whether there are local cases of novel coronavirus, as well as how bad symptoms are, the CDC says. “Clinicians are strongly encouraged to test for other causes of respiratory illness, including infections such as influenza,” the CDC says.
“Most people will not need to be tested, and at this time, there are no recommendations for broad testing of asymptomatic people,” Dr. Cennimo says.
Ultimately, whether you’re tested or not will be the result of a discussion you and your doctor have, as well as what your doctor thinks is best, Dr. Adalja says.
How does the test work?
If your doctor things you might have novel coronavirus, they will contact the CDC or your local health department for instructions on testing, the U.S. National Library of Medicine says. From there, you might be asked to go to a special lab for testing, given that only certain labs have been allowed to do tests for COVID-19.
Labs might use one of the following tests, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine:
- A swab test. A practitioner will use a special swab to take a sample from your nose or throat.
- A nasal aspirate. This involves injecting saline solution into your nose, and then removing the sample with gentle suction.
- A tracheal aspirate. A thin, lighted tube called a bronchoscope will be put down your mouth and into your lungs, where a sample will be collected.
- A sputum test. Sputum is a thick mucus that’s coughed up from the lungs. If you have a mucousy cough, you may be asked to cough up sputum into a special cup, or a special swab may be used to take a sample from your nose.
- A blood sample. This is just like a standard blood test: A healthcare professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved a rapid test for novel coronavirus. The test was developed by the CDC and uses samples from the nose, throat, or lungs, the U.S. National Library of Medicine says. The test is now allowed to be used at any CDC-approved lab around the country.
How long does it take to get test results?
It can vary by lab, but in general, you can expect to hear back within 48 hours, Dr. Fernando says. We might see the turnaround time for results decrease soon, says Dr. Adalja.
What can you do to lower your risk of contracting novel coronavirus?
Again, if you have symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, it’s much more likely that you have the common cold or flu than the virus. And while cases of novel coronavirus are growing in the U.S., it is still considered a relatively low risk to the majority of Americans. That said, there are some precautions you can take to lower your odds of getting COVID-19 (that also happen to be the same as the ones you’d take to lower your risk of contracting the cold or flu). This is what the CDC currently recommends:
- Do your best toavoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touchingyour eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Clean and disinfectfrequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaningspray or wipe.
- Wash your handsoften with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. And if soap and wateraren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
People have scrambled to stock up on face masks, but the CDC and other public health officials have repeatedly stressed that face masks are not recommended or effective at keeping you protected from novel coronavirus.
Ultimately, experts recommend keeping tabs on your local news to see if this type of coronavirus happens to be in your area. If it is and you develop symptoms, call your doctor and go from there. But they all stress that you shouldn’t panic over the virus. Remember: If you’re taking precautions to avoid illness and calling your doctor with any concerns, the novel coronavirus is still less worrisome than influenza is every year.
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