Feb 21, 2022, 9:55:16 AM CST Jul 1, 2022, 1:51:07 PM CDT

Understanding COVID-19 testing for children

Learn about the types of COVID-19 tests available for kids and when to test

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As COVID‑19 continues to spread and children have risk of exposure, it's important to understand when and where you can get your child tested. Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern, shares more information about different types of COVID‑19 tests, if they are accurate, tips to prepare your child and more.

When should I get my child tested for COVID‑19?

Getting a COVID‑19 test is an important way to reduce the spread of the virus. You should get your child tested for COVID‑19 in the following situations:

  • Your child is showing signs of COVID‑19, such as:
    • Congestion
    • Cough
    • Diarrhea
    • Fatigue
    • Fever or chills
    • Headache
    • Loss of taste or smell
    • Muscle or body aches
    • Runny nose
    • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
    • Sore throat
    • Vomiting or nausea
  • Children should also be tested if they had known or suspected close contact with someone with COVID‑19. Test at least 5 days after they had close contact. Learn more about what to do if your child is exposed to COVID‑19.
  • You may also choose to get your child tested if you're concerned about any potential exposure before being around someone who is at high risk for serious illness.
  • There may also be times when your child needs to get tested for school, certain activities or travel situations.

What types of COVID‑19 tests are available for kids?

A viral test is a test that tells you if you have current COVID‑19 infection. The two types of viral COVID‑19 tests are molecular and antigen tests, commonly known as PCR and rapid tests.

Molecular COVID‑19 tests (PCR)

Also called nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs), this type of test looks for pieces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in your child's respiratory tract. A molecular test is performed with a nose or throat swab, and typically needs to go to a laboratory for results. This means you may get results same-day or up to several days later. A PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test is a common molecular test. A PCR test is considered the most accurate test for detecting COVID‑19.

Antigen COVID‑19 tests (Rapid)

Often called rapid tests, antigen tests also use a nose or throat swab. Antigen tests are very good at detecting COVID‑19 when a person has a high amount of virus particles in their body (meaning they are highly contagious). Some antigen tests can give results in as little as 15-30 minutes, and they are generally reliable. At-home COVID‑19 test kits are a type of antigen test that allows people to administer the test to themselves (or their child) from the convenience of their own home.

Are at-home COVID‑19 tests accurate for kids?

At-home COVID‑19 tests, also known as self-tests or over-the-counter (OTC) tests, are an important public health tool. They can be used on children and accurately detect high levels of COVID‑19. Having an at-home COVID‑19 test on hand is helpful to quickly test your child when needed.

"Rapid tests are an effective, efficient and convenient means to screen children for the COVID‑19 virus," says Dr. Kahn. “While these tests are not as sensitive as the molecular or PCR-based tests, a positive test result confirms the infection in most cases and allows the parents to take the necessary steps in keeping their child isolated."

  • If your child has COVID‑19 symptoms and tests positive on an at-home test, they have the virus. They don't need to get another test to confirm. Isolate from others and watch for any warning signs that your child needs medical care.
  • If your child has COVID‑19 symptoms and tests negative on an at-home test, this means that the test did not detect the virus. However, this does not rule out COVID‑19 infection. If your child has symptoms, it's best to continue isolating and to either schedule a PCR test or to repeat a self-test 24-28 hours later.
  • If your child doesn't have COVID‑19 symptoms and is testing before attending an event, such as a family or social gathering, they should test as close to the time of the gathering as possible.

It's important to remember that COVID‑19 tests are helpful for checking for current infection – but test results are only accurate for that point in time. It is possible to develop infection after you receive a negative test, especially if you test too early after COVID‑19 exposure.

Tips for giving your child an at-home COVID‑19 test

First, check that your child is old enough to take the at-home test. Age requirements should be listed on the box or in the test instructions. If you are performing an at-home COVID‑19 test on your child, tell them what they can expect before performing the test. Rather than telling your child that it won't hurt, focus on explaining what steps you will take. You can let them know that it may be a little uncomfortable, but it will not take too long. One of the best ways to ease fear is to remain calm and reassuring.

"It is very important to follow the instructions for an at-home test very closely; if not the test results may not be reliable," says Dr. Kahn.

If your child is old enough to perform an at-home test on their own, help by going over the instructions with them to ensure the results are as accurate as possible.

Learn more tips on how to ease anxiety and prepare your child for a COVID‑19 test.

Where can I get my child tested for COVID‑19?

Your child's primary care provider may be able to perform a COVID‑19 test or refer your child for testing. You can also view COVID‑19 community testing locations near you. After typical office hours, some urgent cares may also offer COVID‑19 tests.

You may pick up an at-home COVID‑19 test from a local pharmacy or order tests online. Every home in the U.S. is now eligible to receive four free at-home COVID‑19 tests. You may order your free tests by visiting covidtests.gov.

Learn more

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.

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