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COVID-19 tests: What it feels like to have one

Testing is still limited to screened patients, medical professionals, first-responders — and White House visitors. But it’s expected to become more widely available.

Getting a swab test for COVID-19 “is not comfortable,” a University of Chicago Medicine doctor says.
Getting a swab test for COVID-19 “is not comfortable,” a University of Chicago Medicine doctor says.
Getty Images

Government and health officials are talking a lot about coronavirus testing. So what does it feel like to undergo one of the not-yet-widely-available nasal swab tests for COVID-19?

With testing still limited, we can’t offer a firsthand report. But Dr. Jayant Pinto can.

“It’s not comfortable, I’ll just be honest,” says Pinto, a University of Chicago Medicine otolaryngologist who’s had similar tests done on himself. “There’s a little discomfort. It’s not long-lasting. It’ll sting for a minute.”

It isn’t pain like you feel from a shot. Instead, think about how it felt if you’ve gotten chlorinated water up your nose in a swimming pool.

Dr. Jayant Pinto: “It’s not comfortable.”
Dr. Jayant Pinto: “It’s not comfortable.”
University of Chicago Medicine

The complex nerve endings in your nose told your brain: That’s not right, there’s something bad in there. And that burning sensation makes you want to blow the water right back out.

Well, the swab test for COVID-19 is more intense than that.

“It’s a deep burning, and it often elicits tears and sometimes coughing,” says Molly K. Erickson, a nurse practitioner at Rush University Medical Center who helped set up the Chicago hospital’s testing sites. “That discomfort really comes with getting an adequate sample.”

Molly K. Erickson, a nurse practitioner at Rush University Medical Center: “It’s a deep burning.”
Molly K. Erickson, a nurse practitioner at Rush University Medical Center: “It’s a deep burning.”
Rush University Medical Center

So, if you didn’t feel anything, it means the test probably wasn’t done right.

There are several types of coronavirus tests. All involve collecting a sample using a swab.

That’s followed by molecular analysis to look for the presence of the virus’ genetic material.

Blood tests, in contrast, look for a person’s antibodies to a virus, which show past exposure and possibly future immunity. So far, one blood test for coronavirus has been approved by the U.S. government. Others are under development.

Most swab tests aim for the virus’ preferred hiding spots in the nasopharynx, located about seven centimeters straight back into the nose, or in the turbinate area, about 2.5 centimeters inside the nose.

The person administering the test will wear PPE — personal protective equipment — including a mask, face shield and gown, to protect against possible exposure from your breath or a sudden sneeze or any airborne particles that get stirred up.

Once the swab is inserted, it needs to be swirled around for about 15 seconds. Depending on the test, the same thing might also be done through your other nostril.

The discomfort you feel typically goes away quickly, and there’s usually no bleeding.

President Donald Trump, who’s been tested at least twice, described it as “not something I want to do every day, I can tell you that.”

U.S. testing got a boost late last month when Abbott Laboratories, based in Lake County, was given expedited approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration to roll out its new rapid COVID-19 test. It uses a portable machine about the size of a toaster to provide results quickly — as quickly as five minutes for a positive result and 13 minutes for a negative result.

With Abbott Laboratories’ new rapid test for COVID-19, samples collected with nasal swabs are inserted in a machine that looks for the virus’ genetic material. Positive results appear in as little as five minutes.
With Abbott Laboratories’ new rapid test for COVID-19, samples collected with nasal swabs are inserted in a machine that looks for the virus’ genetic material. Positive results appear in as little as five minutes.
Provided

The White House was one of the first locations to get the Abbott tests. Since the beginning of April, guests visiting Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been required to get a test even if they feel healthy, the Washington Post reported.

Most other people will have to wait a bit longer. Chicago-area facilities using the new Abbott test or other types of COVID-19 tests are offering them only to patients who go through a screening process and are found to have symptoms or to medical personnel and first-responders.

Erickson says Rush is using a combination of the Abbott kits, its own in-house tests and tests sent to private labs. The testing process is “very orchestrated” and not set up for walk-in visits by the public. Everyone must first be screened via a video visit or by a clinic, emergency room or hospital personnel and deemed a good candidate for testing.

Dr. Warren Wollin, senior director of Physicians Immediate Care, which has five drive-up centers in Chicago and elsewhere in northern Illinois, says the tests are limited to screened, symptomatic patients and first-responders.

“We try to keep it as low-risk as possible by keeping it outside the clinic,” Wollin says of the drive-up sites.

With the rapid test, patients get results while they wait in their cars, and medical professionals can act immediately if someone needs urgent care, Wollin says. Those who test positive but aren’t feeling ill might be directed to have a telehealth visit online.

What isn’t known yet: exactly how accurate the various COVID-19 tests are. Normally, reems of data have to be submitted to the FDA before a test is approved. But the usually stringent requirements were waived to more quickly bring testing to the public.