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COVID-19 Testing and Kids: What You Should Know

A young kid getting tested for covid
by: Shadey Grant
January 12, 2024

Parents everywhere grapple with many questions as we continue navigating the post-COVID-19 era. Among these is the need to understand the importance of COVID testing for kids and how to manage it.

Understanding when and how to get children tested can guide parents, children and community members to curb the spread of the virus, especially with the emergence of different variants.

Here’s everything you need to know to help you decide which test your kids should take.

What is a rapid antigen test (RAT)?

Rapid Antigen Tests, or RATs, are diagnostic tests that detect specific proteins, or antigens, on the surface of the virus. These tests can be performed at:

  • Testing sites
  • A doctor’s office
  • Home (using approved at-home COVID tests)

Rapid antigen tests are relatively quick, with results typically available within a few minutes to hours. This can help to determine whether a person with symptoms has an active infection.

A positive result means you have COVID, while negative test results don’t necessarily represent the absence of the virus. If symptoms persist, you can repeat the testing after 48 hours or proceed with molecular tests for confirmation.

How do you use a rapid antigen test?

Using a rapid antigen test involves taking a nasal swab, which is then inserted into a solution. The solution is applied to a test device displaying the result after a few minutes.

For at-home tests, follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully to ensure an accurate test result.

Is a rapid antigen test suitable for kids?

Rapid antigen tests are suitable for kids and can be helpful, especially for children with close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case or those displaying symptoms.

Symptoms could range from mild symptoms, such as:

  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Body aches

Parents may opt for at-home COVID tests for their kids in some situations. These tests offer the convenience of testing from the comfort of home, which reduces potential exposure at a testing site or doctor’s office. However, parents should seek medical care for guidance on testing for children younger than two.

How accurate is a rapid antigen test?

While polymerase chain reaction tests (PCR) tests are the most accurate diagnostic test, rapid antigen tests can provide valuable information on your kid’s infection status. These tests are highly accurate when a person has symptoms, but they can miss some infections in asymptomatic people.

A positive test result from a rapid antigen test is usually highly accurate.

However, a negative test result doesn’t entirely rule out a current infection, especially in those with recent exposure to the virus or new symptoms. In such cases, a PCR test may be required to confirm the result.

Always consult with health experts or your child’s doctor to determine the best testing options for your situation.

When should you use a rapid antigen test?

PCR tests, often considered the “gold standard” of COVID testing, are highly accurate but may take a few days to yield results. On the other hand, rapid antigen tests provide same-day results, which helps to identify an active infection quickly.

Here are some situations in which a rapid antigen test can be useful.

If your child has COVID-19 symptoms

Symptoms of COVID-19 in children are similar to those in adults, including:

  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Body aches
  • Headache

If your child shows such symptoms, get them tested as soon as possible to determine their infection status. Rapid antigen tests, due to their quick turnaround, can be an excellent choice for this.

If the result is positive, this indicates an active infection.

In contrast, a negative test result doesn’t entirely rule out COVID-19, particularly in the presence of symptoms. In this case, a PCR test is recommended for confirmation.

young girl showing symptoms of covid

If your child has a known exposure to COVID

If your child has had close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, it’s recommended to carry out a rapid antigen test. Known exposure to the virus significantly increases the risk of infection, making testing a vital step in disease control.

A rapid test can quickly identify whether your child has contracted the virus, even if they show no symptoms (asymptomatic). Asymptomatic people can still spread the virus, so rapid testing after known exposure can help protect others in the community, such as family members or school peers.

Sometimes, your healthcare provider may suggest taking an antigen test with an antibody test to confirm past or current infection. Antibody testing is a blood test to determine if your child has developed immunity from COVID.

If your child has no symptoms but is going into a different group setting

Children going into new group settings, like school or a summer camp, can benefit from a rapid antigen test, even if they don’t have symptoms.

This proactive measure ensures that asymptomatic carriers of the virus are detected before they can spread it. Rapid antigen tests are helpful here because they provide results quickly, which sees to it that your child can safely join the group.

Where do you buy rapid tests for kids?

At-home COVID tests, including the rapid antigen tests suitable for kids, are widely available in:

  • Pharmacies
  • Online retailers
  • Supermarkets

The testing kits typically include clear instructions for the test at home.

Sometimes, your local community might have a testing site where you can pick up rapid antigen tests. Another option is to contact your child’s doctor’s office, as they often guide where to find and how to use these tests.

While rapid antigen tests are helpful, a negative test result shouldn’t be the only determinant in assessing risk, particularly in high-risk situations or in the face of new symptoms.

Parents should continue to monitor their child’s health, look out for new symptoms and consult a healthcare professional if in doubt. After all, every effort counts in our fight against different variants of COVID-19.

Key takeaway

As a parent, being informed about the different testing options, including PCR tests, rapid antigen tests and other tests like antibody tests, can help you navigate this ongoing pandemic. Pay attention to the updates from health organizations as testing guidelines can evolve with new research and changing conditions.

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