What is a PCR Covid test like these days?
October 12, 2021 8:06 PM   Subscribe

I want to get a PCR test for Covid (not one of the rapid home tests) at a drive through at a pharmacy. What is the test like now- does it still require sticking a swab way up into the nasopharynx? Is it painful? I haven't done the test before, but I remember reading about how uncomfortable it was early in the pandemic.
posted by pinochiette to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Nah, we don’t do the brain tickler anymore. Just a swab in the nostril.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:14 PM on October 12, 2021 [7 favorites]

Yes. They still generally involve a nasopharyngeal swab. Good news: Most of the people doing them have lots of practice now, so they are a bit faster and just deep enough. Problem is that if they don't get a good sample, you don't get an accurate result, so they really need to be getting to where the virus is most likely to be. Which is in a pretty hidden and sensitive spot....

I have had many done, and it is generally 'uncomfortable' rather than painful. Your eyes may water in reflex, but this passes. If someone is particularly aggressive while swabbing, you may find it painful, but even this does pass quickly.

There are some alternatives out there now (a swish and spit version), but the nasopharyngeal swabs are still the standard and generally more accurate.

Thank You for being appropriately cautious and getting tested as needed!
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 8:15 PM on October 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

The places where you can get one of those tests near me (in Vermont) stress that they only use the nasal swab tests and not the brain tickler kind. It's probably possible for you to determine in advance which kinds of tests they will be using.
posted by jessamyn at 8:16 PM on October 12, 2021

Here in Colorado you can see whether it's a nasopharyngeal swab or a saliva sample when you make an appointment through the state website. It varies by location. A colleague who helped run an academic testing site all last year reports there's no meaningful accuracy difference between the two.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:24 PM on October 12, 2021

Tests that employ both anterior nares and nasopharyngeal swabs are both authorized now. Fda still considers np swabs superior.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:25 PM on October 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have given roughly one bazillion PCR tests and taken six myself in the past two months. In my experience: the swab goes in to just past where your nose dimples in, which is about an inch, and then you do 10 big circles in there, trying to brush against all the surfaces in your nose. It might make you sneeze, it might feel a bit weird, but it doesn't hurt. There are two kinds of swabs out there and one is a bit sneezier than the other, but there isn't a big difference.

It's much more comfortable than the one where they went allll the way back, and also more comfortable than the one earlier this year where you felt some pressure in your eye while it was being done.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:26 PM on October 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

Call ahead and ask what kind they do (nasal, how far?? or oral swab) I've had a couple of PCR tests done and the nasal swab really doesn't go all that far. It's uncomfortable and tickles like he'll and made me get into a sneezing fit every time, but it didn't hurt. Bring some tissues just in case that happens.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 8:26 PM on October 12, 2021

I took a self-administered PCR nasal swab test at a local CVS and it came back negative. But when I saw my PA last week for an examination and chest x-ray due to recurrent bronchitis, she also gave me the brain tickler PCR test. (Also negative).
Evidently there is some concern that the self-administered nasal swab CVS-type tests may not be as accurate.
posted by apartment dweller at 8:36 PM on October 12, 2021

I've had like six of them in the past couple months due to travel. It's a bit uncomfortable and it lasts just a little longer than you'd hope, but it's all over in less than a minute.
posted by praemunire at 8:40 PM on October 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

I’ve had two. It helps to wiggle your toes. You focus on wiggling your toes instead.
posted by nathaole at 8:43 PM on October 12, 2021 [3 favorites]

My daughter got one on Sunday afternoon and it was the brain tickler. This is in Canada for a hospital administered test. I'd heard from people who got tested for travel that it wasn't so bad and figured because my daughter's a kid they'd do the gentler one but no such luck. On the other hand we got result early Monday morning which was much quicker than expected.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:52 PM on October 12, 2021

Prepandemic we were tested for whooping cough and wow was that a brain tickler. In further than you'd expect possible and then wiggled.

All the PCR tests I've done this pandemic (in Australia) haven't been that deep. It's not painful like a stab, period cramp, headache, anything like that - it's just very uncomfortable, then it's over. Eyewatering, sure, but that's the reflex based on where you have it. If a similar thing was possible elsewhere in the body you wouldn't eyewater.
posted by freethefeet at 2:20 AM on October 13, 2021

I haven't done the test before, but I remember reading about how uncomfortable it was early in the pandemic.

Also not all swabs are alike! Early on, my hospital system was using swabs with rigid metal handles, but by later that year they'd switched to the plastic ones that are more flexible. My first one was with a metal one and it was very, uh, memorable. The plastic ones aren't so horrific, even at the brain-tickling depth.
posted by mochapickle at 2:25 AM on October 13, 2021

I'm in Australia and have had a few tests. I think four or five?

Here they swab your throat and then use the same swab deep up the nose. I think that doing the throat part of it helps make it slightly less uncomfortable because the swab is not dry. Not sure whether it is done differently elsewhere.

It's uncomfortable, maybe even slightly painful, for a very brief time and then you'll be fine.

Thanks for getting tested!
posted by kinddieserzeit at 3:03 AM on October 13, 2021

I’ve been tested over a hundred times at this point, and currently get tested 2-3 times a week for work. It’s been months since anyone’s gone deeper than the lower nostril. Reading the above answers, it seems like this can vary significantly depending on who’s giving the test.

If it helps, I’ve had dozens of the “brain tickler” tests earlier on in the pandemic. It’s not fun, but it’s definitely not the end of the world. Uncomfortable, a bit sneezy, maybe some eye watering, but you’ve totally got this!
posted by mollymayhem at 3:43 AM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yes! And even the deeper ones, the novelty of the weirdness outdoes any other feeling! I agree it’s really more along the lines of discomfort than actual pain.
posted by mochapickle at 3:49 AM on October 13, 2021

Best answer: It's been determined that the virus spreads to the lower sections of the nose, and that the very uncomfortable techniques used at the beginning are not necessary. Whether the insight has been disseminated widely, I dont know.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:07 AM on October 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

In the UK they ask for swabbing both tonsils (or where your tonsils used to be) and swabbing one nostril (I think depending on the test kit the instructions on how many times to swab each bit vary slighty). If you can't do the tonsils (eg for very small kids) you can do both nostrils instead. They tell you to put the swab up your nose "until you feel resistance, or about 1 inch" if I recall correctly.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:15 AM on October 13, 2021

Best answer: At a CVS drive-through yesterday, the swab was self-administered and only had to go an inch into the nose, in both nostrils. This was for a PCR, not a rapid test. My eyes watered, and I would call it "pleasant," but it wasn't nearly as bad as the brain tickler I got last year.
posted by thecaddy at 5:52 AM on October 13, 2021

All drive-through tests I've done (both antigen and PCR) have been self-administered and not very deep. I did recently get two very uncomfortable brain-tickler swabs as well - one in the US at a travel clinic and one outside the US - so they're not totally gone, but they seem much less common (and I agree with the above that it is fine to ask ahead if you think it'll be an issue for you).
posted by mosst at 6:33 AM on October 13, 2021

Also, I agree with the above - if you do get the high nasal swab, it's uncomfortable, but it's over fast and has no lasting effects (although I find that I randomly sneeze a few times in the day or so after). I would rate the discomfort level as being similar to a throat swab for strep, if you've experienced those.
posted by mosst at 6:36 AM on October 13, 2021

My son had one the other day. Swabbed the back of his throat.
posted by zerobyproxy at 9:27 AM on October 13, 2021

The self-administered PCR tests my job uses explicitly say not to insert further than 1". But you have to blow your nose first to move things down. I didn't know anywhere still used brain ticklers, the things you learn online.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:10 AM on October 13, 2021

I didn't know anywhere still used brain ticklers, the things you learn online.

The rapid PCRs in NY and at the Canadian border sure do. I felt like taking a vow of nasal celibacy after my travel!
posted by praemunire at 10:29 AM on October 13, 2021

Honestly, they're not that bad even when they ARE the brain-tickler. It takes like ten seconds! I'd do a brain-tickler over, say, a pap smear or a mammogram any day. But a tip I got from a nurse who did give me the brain tickler recently prior to surgery -- open your mouth when they do it. It makes it much easier.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 10:38 AM on October 13, 2021

To 'is it painful?'

I found it to be uncomfortable, but not painful. It's a 30-second activity (maybe less), and I continued to feel the discomfort for about 10 minutes after.
posted by jander03 at 11:44 AM on October 13, 2021

I suspect how uncomfortable it is may also depend on how sensitive/inflamed your sinuses are. I have chronic sinusitis and my sinuses are often quite sensitive/painful. So when they did the brain tickler on me, it was very painful.

But also, it takes like a couple seconds, and there is some residual discomfort, but it goes away relatively quickly. So I still wouldn't rate it as that big a deal.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:39 PM on October 13, 2021

I just got a rapid antigen today, and the swabs are more comfortable now. flexible, smaller, don't go as far up the nose. The nurse told me all the tests are more comfortable now. No pain.
posted by jander03 at 10:37 AM on October 14, 2021

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