The Difference Between Rapid and PCR Tests

Testing for COVID-19 is now a routine habit for many people across the nation. As the Omicron subtype emerges as COVID-19’s dominant strain, both vaccinated, and unvaccinated individuals are increasingly reliant on weekly (or sometimes daily) screenings to work, travel, or otherwise interact with the community.

As of January 2022, the public has access to two major categories of testing: Rapid antigen and PCR tests. They are both called ‘diagnostic tests,’ therefore either can determine if you’re infected with the virus at the testing time.

While CDC rules on quarantine and isolation will continue evolving, it is highly recommended to understand how these tests function.

What is a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) Test?

A PCR is a test done to detect the presence of an organism’s (such as a virus) genetic material. Thus, it can detect the existence of a virus or viral bits in infected individuals.

PCR tests are more sensitive, and physicians or medical professionals administer them because of their complexity.

What is the Rapid Antigen Test?

Rapid antigen diagnostic tests detect specific proteins on the coronavirus’s surface. They are often called rapid screening tests because the findings can be obtained in less than an hour. Positive antigen testing results are concrete, which means that if you test positive, you’re likely infected.

Despite providing accurate answers within 15 to 30 minutes and with a high degree of speed, antigen tests give more false negatives than PCR testing.

They’re also kit-dependent; meaning that if you use a faulty kit you may get false results. If you are looking for kits from certified manufacturers and distributors you can try Pro Labs.

The Difference: Antigen and PCR Tests

The difference lies in the technique, timing, and usage. The pricing often varies too.

  • An antigen diagnostic test is a quick test, whereas the PCR test generally takes several days to deliver results.
  • An antigen test checks for specific proteins on the virus’ surface, whereas a PCR test detects and magnifies the presence of viral DNA.
  • Antigen tests are cheaper than PCR tests.

Which of the Two Tests is Better

The answer is complex. Both tests are helpful in some circumstances, but they each have disadvantages. If you’re seeking a definitive “most precise ” test,” the PCR test would be it.

In general, the standard gold test is the PCR COVID test. It is excellent for COVID diagnosis while symptoms are developing.

Nevertheless, due to its ability to detect viral particles rather than the actual virus, the test can stay positive long after the patient has recovered and is no longer contagious. Therefore, it is not an optimal way to determine the end of quarantine or isolation.

You can recover completely from the virus but still test positive, which is not ideal if you wish to return to work, travel, or otherwise resume your everyday activities.

Likewise, the rapid antigen test has its downsides. When a person’s system has small quantities of the virus, these tests are far less reliable than PCR. Although the virus is present, its concentration may be too low to detect with the test.

Thus, antigen tests are not the most reliable method for establishing whether an individual has COVID-19 since a person can have modest virus levels and yet test negative.

A negative outcome may require confirmation via PCR.

When is each test important?

Although most people believe the PCR test to be the most precise, antigen tests have their place and time. They’re a valuable addition to your medicine cabinet.

If you’re asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and might have been exposed to the virus, you can benefit from an antigen test. Also, if you want to test for exposure, you can perform two antigen tests five days apart. If both tests are negative and you remain asymptomatic, likely, you don’t have COVID-19.

However, if you develop symptoms and the rapid antigen test results are negative, the best thing to do is confirm the diagnosis with a PCR test. As mentioned earlier, a negative antigen outcome doesn’t necessarily indicate that you don’t have the virus.

The main difference between an antigen test and a PCR test is clear: while an antigen test detects specific proteins on a virus surface, it detects the virus itself and its particles. A PCR is more precise since it doesn’t depend on the viral load. However, it can give inaccurate results if you’ve recently recovered from COVID-19.

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