Don’t Toss Expired COVID Tests
Rapidly rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations may have you reaching for your old home test kits. But what if the expiration date has passed?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautions against using expired COVID-19 test kits. They degrade over time and aren’t likely to give an accurate result. But don’t throw away your expired tests just yet; some may still be good. Here’s why:
When at-home COVID-19 tests first became available, manufacturers had just four to six months to test them and set expiration dates accordingly. Later, when more data showed that some brands were effective longer than expected, the FDA extended the expiration dates. You can check the shelf life of your tests on the FDA website. Brands are listed alphabetically, or you can use a search box.
Important note: In May 2023, nearly half a million SD Biosensor Pilot at-home test kits were recalled due to bacterial contamination. Most were sold at CVS pharmacies, with a smaller number sold on Amazon. The tests pose a particularly serious health risk for immunocompromised people. Find the list of recalled Pilot tests here.
Free COVID-19 tests delivered through the post office went away when the Biden administration declared the pandemic emergency over in April 2023. Now, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise, that program has been reinstated. As of Sept. 25, every household in the U.S. will be able to order four more free rapid COVID-19 tests delivered to their home. You can sign up here.
Where To Get Free COVID-19 Tests
If you need more tests and can’t afford them, some public health sites still provide them at little to no cost.
- Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) health centers offer free COVID-19 testing. Search for a center near you here. If you speak a language other than English, translators may be available to help.
- Increasing Community Access to Testing (ICATT) is a free testing program designed specifically for people who are uninsured and have symptoms or were exposed to COVID-19. If you have insurance, you can still get tested but may be charged a small fee. Find an ICATT location near you here.
- Test-to-Treat is a one-stop, federally funded health care program that offers both free testing and prescriptions for the antiviral pill Paxlovid. Depending on the site, you may be able to get your prescription filled at the same time as your test. Many Test-to-Treat centers are in major pharmacies. Find one near you using this locator tool.
Early in the pandemic, it was important to know if you had COVID-19 so you could take precautions not to infect others. Now that there are relatively effective treatments for the virus, testing can also help you protect yourself.
When To Test
Here’s when to test:
- Right away if you have symptoms like cough, fatigue, body aches and a runny nose. To be effective, antiviral pills like Paxlovid must be started in the first five days after you notice symptoms. Immunocompromised people don’t respond as well to Paxlovid and are more likely to have rebound symptoms. A clinical trial is underway to determine if a longer course of treatment might be more effective for them.
- Wait at least five days to test if you’ve been around someone with COVID. Testing too soon can lead to a false negative result. Isolate as much as possible while waiting and consider wearing a mask in public. If you don’t have symptoms and test negative, the FDA recommends testing at least twice more – about 48 hours apart – to reduce the odds of an inaccurate result. If you test negative but have COVID-19 symptoms, take another test after 48 hours for a total of two tests.
- Test before visiting someone who is at higher risk of serious symptoms, including people who are older, immunocompromised or have diabetes, heart disease or lung problems, although a single negative test doesn’t mean you’re not infected.
- Consider testing before traveling or going to a concert or sports event.
The most accurate COVID-19 test is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test you get at a lab, pharmacy, doctor’s office or health clinic. PCR tests are expensive, don’t give immediate results and aren’t always available when you need them. And, depending on who reads the test and when it was given, it can also give a false negative reading. You can take a PCR test at home but must send it to a lab for analysis.
How Accurate Are At-Home Tests?
At-home tests cost less (though the price adds up fast) and are more convenient but also less sensitive.
Now, a small study from the California Institute of Technology suggests at-home tests may be even less sensitive than originally thought. Researchers tracked how long it took the virus to appear in the nose, throat and saliva. In most infected people, it was detected in the throat and saliva days before the nose, which you swab for at-home tests. Overall, the at-home test was just 44% accurate. The researchers say a combined nose-throat swab would yield better results.
A question no one can answer right now is whether at-home tests can effectively detect currently circulating COVID-19 variants, especially BA.2.86. This variant, although an omicron offshoot, is significantly different from earlier strains, with more than 30 mutations in the spike protein. It can more easily evade the immune system and may evade tests, too, though no one knows for sure.
Experts agree, however, that testing is better than not testing. False positives in at-home tests are rare, so if you test positive, it’s likely you have COVID. A negative test isn’t as certain.