What To Expect From a COVID-19 Test

Find out about what to expect from COVID-19 testing with this handy guide. 

What is a COVID-19 test? 

A COVID-19 test is a quick test that you can do to tell if you have COVID-19. It is a nasal-pharyngeal swab and there are two parts to it. First is the ‘pharyngeal’ part, which means using a long cotton bud to stroke your tonsils for a few moments. The ‘nasal’ part is next, which means inserting another long cotton bud about 2.5cm into your nose for another swab – move it around a bit to swab properly. 

Swabbing is a bit invasive and not particularly fun, but not awful either. The best advice is to just stay calm while you do it, and it should be over quickly.

The process for testing is the same for everyone at the moment, even for small children or people with additional support needs. There are staff to support you at testing sites. 

The COVID-19 test is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test which meets a international gold standard for testing due to being extremely accurate. No test is 100% but there is a very low margin of error with these tests. 

Another type of test is the the lateral flow test (LFT). This involves a handheld kit that gives a result in about 30 minutes, it differs from a PCR test in that it doesn't need to be sent to a lab for analysis. Fluid from a nasal swab or saliva goes on one end, then a marking appears if you are positive.

LFTs are the tests being offered to students across Scotland who are returning home for the winter break. You can read more about what this process will involve at scot.gov.

When should you get a COVID-19 test? 

You only need to get a test if you display symptoms of COVID-19, head to the NHS Inform site to checkYou’ll need to get a test within the first few days of displaying symptoms, as the test is only effective within 5 days of when you first got symptoms. 

If you’ve been in contact with someone who may have COVID-19, isolate yourself and wait for their test results. If their result is positive, continue to isolate for 10 days from the day they first got symptoms. If their result is negative you can stop isolating. 

If, during isolation, you begin to develop symptoms, then you should also get a test and continue to isolate. No-one else in your household needs to get tested but they should isolate until you have your results.  

Where can you get a test done? 

There are drive-in test centres in most major cities in Scotland which anyone living in that region can attend, and some walk-in tests centres in a number of areas across Scotland. There's more info on the Scottish Government site.

There are also mobile testing units which move around the country. You will need to book in advance to attend a drive-in testing centre or a mobile testing unit, and you can begin this process on the UK Government website. 

To get to a test centre you should go by car, walk or bike. Definitely don’t take public transport or get a taxi to get to a test centre. When you go for your test, don’t do other things like shopping when out, just go straight to the test centre and straight home again. 

You could also request a home test kit, although this will take a bit longer to reach you. Use the same link above to request a home kit. The kit will be posted out to you, and then collected by courier when you are done. Test results can take a bit longer to reach you if you use a home kit. 

Getting test results 

While you are waiting for your test results:

  • stay at home and keep isolating 
  • don’t go out 
  • get your household to isolate  

Your results should be sent to you by text or email, or can request call on a landline number. You will give these details to the staff at the testing site. If it has been more than 72 hours since your test at a centre, you can call 0800 028 2816 to check in. 

If your test comes back positive you need to: 

  • isolate for a further 10 days
  • get the rest of your household to isolate for 10 days 

Once you have tested positive, the details you provided when taking the test will be entered into the contact tracing system database and you will receive a phone call from someone in the NHS Test and Protect team. They will ask you who you were in contact with while infectious. To find out more about NHS Test and Protect see our Guide to Contact Tracing.

If your test comes back negative, you and your household can stop isolating and continue on as normal.

When to get medical help

Call 111 for medical help if:

 If you have a medical emergency, phone 999 and tell them you have coronavirus symptoms.

More information from Young Scot on Coronavirus (COVID-19)