Pictures and illustrations of a coronavirus test might look unnerving.
But medical experts emphasize the procedure — which is a common test for respiratory infections — is absolutely normal.
Though testing is still limited in places, if you have symptoms of COVID-19 — the respiratory disease caused by this vigorously spreading coronavirus — there’s no reason to avoid the test. Testing is critical to help contain the spread of the contagious microbe. Called a “nasopharyngeal swab,” it requires a health professional to insert a cotton swab (like a long Q-tip, but thinner) through your nasal passage, reaching all the way to the back of your throat.
At worst, it’s a bit uncomfortable.
“It is perfectly normal, maybe uncomfortable, but perfectly normal,” said Mark Cameron, an immunologist at Case Western Reserve University who helped contain the 2003 SARS outbreak. “It’s an uncomfortable test, but it’s the gold standard of testing.”
“It’s not scary,” Cameron added, noting a similar test is used to see if someone has strep throat.
“It’s a little uncomfortable,” agreed Dr. David Alland, chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “It’s on the level of getting your blood taken or getting a shot. It’s on that order of anxiety.”
The deep nasopharyngeal swab is the standard, most reliable known test for the virus, officially called SARS-CoV-2 (to differentiate it from other types of coronavirus). “It’s the most logical place to test for SARS-CoV-2,” said Alland. Later this year, other testing methods, such as swabbing different parts of the throat or nose, might prove just as effective, or not, he explained.
This virus infects our airways, so the long, thin swab reaches an area that is reliably infected, said Cameron. It’s also an area with a lot of secretions (like from coughing), which reflects the virus growing in the lungs, he added.
For those still uncomfortable with a test, the nurses taking swabs know what they’re doing.
“It actually is quite common and while unpleasant, not overly painful for most individuals,” said Jessica L. Peck, a clinical professor of nursing at Baylor University. “Nurses are well versed at making uncomfortable procedures tolerable.”
“It gets done and is over quickly,” added Alland.
Tests are a critical element of curbing the spread of the virus. They can identify infected people who need to isolate, as this coronavirus easily passes between individuals who are close together. That’s why the CDC recommends staying at least six feet from others.
“We do need to get everyone tested who needs to be tested,” said Cameron.
That said, not everyone can easily get a test. The U.S. has been woefully slow in testing — though testing is now ramping up. So if a doctor says you’re a good candidate for a test and they’re available, it’s critical to get tested. That’s how South Korea stymied the spread of coronavirus.
Testing innovations could make testing faster and more widespread. For example, the medical-device maker Abbott Laboratories says it will make 50,000 five-minute tests a day, starting on April 1. But you’ll still need the swabs.
“[Abbott’s test] may go a long way to ensure there are easy ways to test any specimens that are taken,” said Cameron.
Yet, beyond testing, there’s another powerful weapon to significantly slow the spread of coronavirus. You know it well: . It’s all the more critical to avoid contact with others because a whopping one in four people may have no symptoms at all, according to CDC director Robert Redfield.
You might be completely well and infecting others.
So social distance. And if you need to get tested, don’t be deterred by the long Q-tip or unnerving swab graphics. “It’s normal — this is a normal procedure,” said Cameron.
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