What happens during a PCR test?
In general, a health professional will take a swab sample from the back of your nose and throat.
You may also be asked to provide a sample of sputum (mucus from your airways), by coughing and spitting into a sample container. Your sample is sent to a laboratory and you will usually receive your results in 5 days.
A health professional may require you to collect a specimen for a COVID-19 test by yourself. This is not a home testing kit because the testing itself will be conducted in an accredited pathology laboratory.
If you need to collect a specimen by yourself, read the Department of Health’s information sheet on how to self-collect a COVID-19 swab.
How do I get tested for COVID-19?
The criteria for testing in Australia will depend on where you live. At a minimum you need fit one or more of these:
- experiencing COVID-19 like symptoms such as fever and cough
- have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case
- have returned recently from overseas.
Speak to your doctor or call the National Coronavirus Hotline on 1800 020 080 about whether you meet the requirements for testing in your area.
If you are concerned about flu-like symptoms use the healthdirect Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker to see the next steps you need to take.
Where can I be tested?
Speak with your health professional about the closest testing centre to you. Testing in Australia usually takes place in a designated pathology collection centre, a hospital, or a respiratory clinic. There are also mobile and drive-through clinics in some areas.
Each venue has its own rules about whether you need to make an appointment or have a GP referral with you. Call ahead before your visit to ensure you have the right documents and identification with you.
Find out more about respiratory clinics in your area
What do I do after the test?
After your test a health professional will give you clear instructions on what you need to do. In general, you will be told to stay home and wait for your results. While you wait, avoid close contact with people in your household and practice good hygiene.
How long will it take for me to get results?
This will vary and depends on where you are tested. In general, it takes between 1 and 5 days. You should get a phone call or SMS if you have a negative result. If your result is positive you will get a phone call with details about what you need to do next.
If your PCR test results are positive, you will be required to self-isolate but you may also need medicine or treatment depending on your symptoms. This will be clarified when you receive your results.
I've read about false negative and false positive PCR results, what does this mean?
As mentioned earlier, no medical test is 100% perfect. They can provide helpful information to support a diagnosis, or to help guide treatment, but they shouldn't be used on their own.
Very rarely a PCR test may not find traces of SARS-CoV-2 , even though the person has been infected with the virus. This is what we call a 'false negative' result.
These results may occur because the person has only recently been infected, or is at the end of the infection, and the amount of SARS-CoV-2 virus in their body is low at the time of testing. There could also be issues with the testing process such as a swab collecting cells not yet infected by the virus.
On the other hand, a person could be told they have SARS-CoV-2, when they don’t. This is called a 'false positive', and also happens very rarely. False positives may be due to contamination of the swab, or occur when a person has recovered from the infection but still has a small amount of the virus in their body, even though they are not infectious anymore.
Receiving a false negative or a false positive test results could be distressing. A false negative result may increase the risk of spreading infection in the broader community, while a false positive result can cause increased anxiety and an unnecessary period of self-isolation.
Tests are an important part of healthcare, but the above explains why diagnosis should not rely on a test alone, and why health professionals will consider other information about the person, such as symptoms, contact with other infected people, and recent overseas travel.