When should I get a PCR test? Rules on when to get tested for Covid - and how to book a PCR

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People are being encouraged to take a PCR test if they experience any c

Covid-19 cases have been falling in most parts of the UK, although infection levels still remain high.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that infections have dropped in all regions of England except in the south west.

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In England around one in 20 people in private households, or 2.6 million people, are estimated to have had the virus in the week to 22 January. This is down from 3.0 million in the week to 15 January.

Drops have also been seen in Scotland where 163,600 people are estimated to have had Covid-19 last week, down from 236,60, while in Wales figures went from 112,10 cases down to 99,50.

PCR tests are mainly used for people who have Covid-19 symptoms (Photo: Getty Images)PCR tests are mainly used for people who have Covid-19 symptoms (Photo: Getty Images)
PCR tests are mainly used for people who have Covid-19 symptoms (Photo: Getty Images) | AFP via Getty Images

While infection levels may be falling across the country it is still possible to catch coronavirus, particularly given how contagious the Omicron variant has proved to be.

If you are unsure when to take a Covid-19 test, or which type to take, here’s what you need to know.

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When should I get a PCR test?

There are two main types of tests you can take to check if you have coronavirus, but which one you use depends on why you are getting tested.

PCR tests are mainly used for people who have symptoms of Covid-19, and the sample will be sent off to a lab to be checked.

By comparison, lateral flow tests are intended for people who do not have any symptoms and are instead used for regular testing at home. These tests give instant results, unlike a PCR.

If you have symptoms of Covid-19, you should get a PCR test as soon as possible, even if the effects are only mild.

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The NHS recommends getting a PCR if you have any of the following:

  • a high temperature
  • a new, continuous cough
  • a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste

While these three are thought to be the main symptoms of coronavirus, the Omicron variant has been found to cause different effects, with symptoms being very similar to the common cold.

If you have any of the following, it is worth getting a PCR test to check if you have Covid-19:

  • Fatigue
  • Body aches and pains
  • Scratchy throat 
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Night sweats
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Skin rashes
  • Fever

You should self-isolate at home until you receive your test result.

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How do I book a PCR test?

If you have Covid-19 symptoms, you can order a PCR test kit to be sent to your home, or you can book an appointment at a walk-in or drive-through test site.

Those who have received a positive PCR test result in the last 90 days should not request or book a test, unless you get any new coronavirus symptoms.

Ordering or booking a test can be done via the government website.

When should I take a lateral flow test?

Lateral flow tests can be taken at home and should be used by people who do not have coronavirus symptoms.

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Around one in three people with Covid-19 are asymptomatic, according to the NHS, but can still pass the virus on to others.

As such, taking rapid tests can help to reduce transmission and as they do not need to be sent to a lab, the results are quick.

It is advised that lateral flow tests are taken before mixing with people in crowded indoor places, or before visiting other people.

Daily rapid tests should also be taken for seven days if you have been in contact with someone with coronavirus and are fully vaccinated, or under 18 years and six months old.

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Free lateral flow tests can be ordered via the government website.

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