Testing for COVID-19: When to get tested and testing results
On this page
- Who should get tested
- Where and how to get tested
- Handling COVID-19 rapid tests safely
- How samples are collected for diagnostic COVID-19 tests
- What to do after testing results
- How to report a problem with your test
- How testing for COVID-19 works
Who should get tested
People with COVID-19 can have:
- mild symptoms
- severe symptoms
- no symptoms at all (also known as asymptomatic)
Follow the testing directions provided by your local public health authority if you have:
- been exposed to a person with COVID-19
COVID-19 rapid tests may be used to help quickly identify and isolate people who have COVID-19. This includes people who don't have any symptoms.
Always follow the instructions contained in your test kit or provided by your local health authority. The instructions tell you how to take the test and collect a sample. They are written specifically for that particular type of kit. If you take a sample in a different way, your test result may be invalid.
Where and how to get tested
Some provinces have programs in place that distribute free COVID-19 rapid test kits and others have extensive testing programs. Visit your provincial or territorial government website to find out:
- where to get a molecular test (often called a PCR test)
- where to get a COVID-19 rapid test
Pick your province:
- British Columbia
- New Brunswick
- Newfoundland and Labrador
- Northwest Territories
- Nova Scotia
- Prince Edward Island
Workplace rapid testing and screening
The Government of Canada, some provincial/territorial governments and distribution partners are also providing free COVID-19 rapid teststo organizations. These tests are to be used to regularly screen employees who must work on-site. This provides an extra layer of defence against the spread of the virus which helps keep employees and communities safe. Organizations can apply through our federal program.
Handling COVID-19 rapid tests safely
You may receive rapid antigen test kits for at-home self-testing as part of federal, provincial or territorial COVID-19 testing initiatives that have been authorized by Health Canada for use by laboratories or trained individuals. While these kits are safe, effective, and beneficial for self-testing, the product labelling and instructions may not describe or disclose the risks associated with misuse or accidental ingestion.
Take caution when handling these test kits, as many include liquid solutions with chemical preservatives. These may be hazardous if swallowed in larger amounts or if spilled on the skin, particularly to children and pets. Unintentional ingestion or skin exposure to very small quantities of liquid solutions, such as the quantity found in test kits, would not be expected to cause the serious effects.
What you should do
- Keep rapid antigen test kits and solutions out of the reach of children and pets.
- Do not swallow the solutions and avoid eye and skin contact.
- Wash hands thoroughly after use.
- If spillage occurs, rinse well with water.
- Follow all instructions for proper disposal.
- Report any health product-related side effects or complaints to Health Canada.
- Contact your local poison centre if you experience a reaction after unintentional ingestion or skin exposure to chemicals.
For more information, please consult the public advisory on rapid antigen test kits and potential exposure to hazardous substances.
How samples are collected for diagnostic COVID-19 tests
There are different ways that samples can be collected to test for COVID-19. They can be collected through a:
- nose swab
- throat swab
- saliva sample
- oral (fluid) swab
For nucleic acid-based testing, such as molecular PCR, samples are collected from a patient in either a:
- health care setting (for example, doctor's office) or
- point-of-care setting (for example, clinics, pharmacies, workplaces, schools)
For conventional, laboratory based testing methods, patient samples must be first transported to the laboratory. It often takes 1 to 3 days for people to get their results back. Some rapid molecular tests can produce results in less than 1 hour.
Rapid antigen detection tests (RADT) (often called COVID-19 rapid tests) detect proteins of the virus. They are quick and easy to perform. The results can be seen in as little as 15 to 30 minutes.
Self-tests make it possible for people to collect samples for themselves or their dependants. They can administer the test and read their results at home. More information on self-tests and how to use them correctly can be found in our self-testing for COVID-19 fact sheet.
What to do after getting test results
If you use a COVID-19 rapid test or have received a lab (PCR) test, you need to know what to do with your result.
If your test result is positive:
- immediately isolate yourself away from others, including those in your household, and follow the advice of your local public health authority on isolation requirements
- and was from a COVID-19 rapid test, contact your local public health authority for advice about reporting the result and whether to book a lab (PCR) test to confirm the diagnosis (they may recommend you get tested at a designated site)
- and you have symptoms that are getting worse, contact your health care provider
If your test result is negative, you may still be in the early stages of infection and can potentially infect others, so you need to:
- follow the instructions contained in your test kit and advice from your local public health authority about how soon after you should re-test
- isolate yourself if you have any COVID-19 symptoms and follow advice from your local public health authority on additional testing
- quarantine if you have been exposed to COVID-19 and your local public health authority recommends this
- continue to follow all public health measures, including:
- staying home when sick
- improving ventilation
- wearing a well-fitted mask
Learn more about:
How to report a problem with your test
If you have witnessed or experienced a problem with a medical device, including a COVID-19 test, you should report it. We recommend that you report your problem directly to the manufacturer of the test. Look for contact details for the manufacturer on the box and/or the test's instructions for use.
How testing for COVID-19 works
Want to understand COVID-19 testing?
In Canada, there are different ways to test and analyze results for COVID-19. New tests and technologies are also being developed. So the types of tests that local public health authorities are using may differ.
There are 2 main categories of COVID-19 tests:
- those that diagnose and screen for an active infection and
- those that detect antibodies in response to a previous infection
Diagnosing and screening for active infections
Nucleic acid-based testing (commonly referred to as molecular testing) is the main type of test used in Canada to diagnose COVID-19. Of all the molecular tests, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the most common. Molecular tests detect the virus's genetic material (nucleic acids).
Rapid antigen detection tests RADT (often called COVID-19 rapid tests) are used to detect virus proteins. While the technology is advancing, antigen tests are generally less sensitive than molecular tests for diagnosing COVID-19 in people who have no symptoms of illness (asymptomatic). Antigen tests are, however, useful for screening asymptomatic people if they are tested at regular intervals (called serial testing). Serial testing is usually done 2 to 3 times over a period of 36 hours. This increases the overall sensitivity of the RADTs by allowing detection of the virus when levels begin to increase in infected individuals.
Get more information on these types of tests:
As part of Canada's overall testing strategy, Health Canada has authorized a number of self-tests. These tests are based either on molecular or on antigen technology.
Tests that detect previous infection through Antibody tests
The second type of tests are serology or antibody tests. These tests do not detect the virus itself. Instead, they detect antibodies, which are produced in response to a previous infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus or in response to vaccination. Most serology tests are not able to distinguish the source that is the cause of the antibodies (for example from vaccination ar a previous infection). They also can not confirm that an individual has adequate antibodies in their blood stream to protect them from future infection.
More information on serological tests can be found on our serological testing devices page.
Want to see how testing is done? Watch health professionals in action .
- Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Symptoms, treatment, what to do if you feel sick
- Measures to reduce COVID-19 in your community
- Testing for travellers
- Collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory
- COVID-19: How to quarantine or isolate at home
- COVID-19: Individual public health measures
- Ventilation helps protect against the spread of COVID-19
- COVID-19 mask use: Advice for community settings
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