How To Test Yourself for Coronavirus at Home

Test Yourself for Coronavirus At Home

In the absence of an FDA-approved test, the best you can do is to learn how to test yourself for coronavirus at home. Here are three options and a list of symptoms.

Test Yourself for Coronavirus At Home

This COVID-19 pandemic would be a lot less scary if you could reliably test yourself for coronavirus at home. Without such a test, we’re flying blind, sorta speak. No one knows if they are or have been infected, and therefore everyone’s become a hypochondriac, as we tentatively move about worrying if we’re either infecting someone or getting infected.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could know if you’re infected, or not?

Well, I’m going to show you three ways you can test yourself for coronavirus at home, but I’ll tell you right now that these three tests are not definitive, and therefore can not replace an FDA-sanctioned test that has been tested and proven reliable.

The problem is that such a test is nowhere to be found for most of us, so until it is available, the next best thing is to build a case for or against you being infected by seeing if you have known symptoms, and to test yourself for coronavirus right at home.

Read on.

 

What are the symptoms of coronavirus COVID-19?

Harvard Health updated an article on COVID-19, including some recently revealed information on a wide array of symptoms that might indicate coronavirus infection.

These are the symptoms:

Nothing

Some people infected with COVID-19 have no symptoms. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t infected — it takes one to two weeks to become symptomatic, and some people never realize they have it.

Common Symptoms

When the virus does cause symptoms, common indications include fever (100.4°F/38°C body temperature), dry cough, fatigue, loss of appetite, loss of smell, and body ache.

Severe Symptoms

COVID-19 can cause more severe symptoms like high fever, severe cough, and shortness of breath, which often indicates pneumonia.

Neurological Symptoms

People with COVID-19 are also experiencing neurological symptoms, such as loss of smell, inability to taste, muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, dizziness, confusion, delirium, seizures and stroke.

Experts do not know how the coronavirus causes neurological symptoms. They may be a direct result of infection or an indirect consequence of inflammation or altered oxygen and carbon dioxide levels caused by the virus.

The CDC has added “new confusion or inability to rouse” to its list of emergency warning signs that should prompt you to get immediate medical attention.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms

In addition, some people have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain or discomfort associated with COVID-19. Such symptoms might start before other symptoms such as fever, body ache and cough. The virus that causes COVID-19 has also been detected in stool, which reinforces the importance of hand washing after every visit to the bathroom and regularly disinfecting bathroom fixtures.

Loss of sense of smell

Increasing evidence suggests that a lost sense of smell (“anosmia”), may be a symptom of COVID-19. This is unsurprising, given that viral infections are a leading cause of loss of sense of smell, and COVID-19 is a virus.

A group of ear, nose and throat specialists (otolaryngologists) in the United Kingdom reported that in Germany, two out of three confirmed COVID-19 cases had a loss of sense of smell; in South Korea, 30% of people with mild symptoms who tested positive for COVID-19 reported anosmia as their main symptom.

Know that in addition to COVID-19, loss of smell can also result from allergies, as well as other viruses, including rhinoviruses that cause the common cold; therefore, anosmia alone does not mean you have COVID-19.

Tell your doctor right away if you find yourself newly unable to smell. He or she may prompt you to get tested and to self-isolate.

Can COVID-19 symptoms worsen rapidly after several days of illness?

Mild symptoms can last for about one week, then rapidly worsen. If they do worsen, let your doctor know, especially if you or someone you know are having any of these emergency symptoms:

  • trouble breathing,
  • persistent pain or pressure in the chest,
  • confusion or inability to arouse the person, or
  • bluish lips or face.

 

What’s the deal with face masks?

coronavirus outbreak

Yours truly in Hong Kong airport in route from Thailand to San Francisco, February 4, 2020.

Before I turn to the three ways you can test yourself for coronavirus at home, let’s address the face mask issue. Whether or not to wear a face mask has become an issue because we’ve had conflicting messages about the value of wearing them.

Once upon a time, the advice proffered from health professionals in the U.S. was to not wear a certain kind of face mask, the N95 kind, so coveted and needed by those health professionals attending to infected patients. This was because N95 face masks do a decent job of projecting the wearer from COVID-19 infection, but were in extremely short supply, so the more of them that went to the general population whose exposure was comparatively tiny, the fewer would be available to health workers.

This is still true — our health pros need the N95 masks much more than we do, but now the CDC recommends that we wear whatever sort of cloth face mask we can get; apparently something is better than nothing, but not necessarily to protect the wearer.

A major roadblock to emerging from our self-isolation into society again is that most of us don’t know if we are, or have been, infected with COVID-19. Given that a person can infect others even if he or she is asymptomatic (shows no symptoms) is a huge problem, and is the primary reason why the CDC now wants us to wear face masks.

Face masks generally do not prevent you from becoming infected, but do a good job of keeping someone who is infected from infecting others.

The Atlantic Magazine has an informative article about the real reason to wear a mask — so you do not infect others. This was studied by a trans-disciplinary team of 19 experts that examined a range of mathematical models and other research to learn what would happen if most people wore a mask in public.

They looked at the probability of how an average infected person might infect one other person while wearing a face mask; this referred to as the reproduction rate called R. R1 means the average infected person infects one other person. R2 means one person infects two others, and so on.

What the team learned was that if 80% of people wear masks that are 60% effective, easily achievable with cloth, we can get to an effective R0 of less than one. That’s enough to halt the spread of the disease.

Moral of the story:

When you leave your home wear a face mask, unless there’s no one around.

 

3 Ways to test yourself for coronavirus at home

The three at-home tests covered here involve:

  1. Health questionnaires that are reliant on you accurately diagnosing and reporting your symptoms;
  2. A Pulse Oximeter that measures blood oxygen levels and heart rate; and
  3. Respiration Rate — the numbers of breathes you take per minute.

None of these tests are definitive, but in the absence of an FDA-approved test for coronavirus, the results of these three tests together with the infection symptoms enumerated above should provide some clarity about whether you should call your doctor for additional guidance.

1. The USC Gehr Family Center for Health Questionnaire Test

Test Yourself for Coronavirus At Home

Primary care doctors,  Michael Hochman and Michael Wang, along with several colleagues, developed a simple self-triage tool to help you decide when to treat your symptoms safely at home and when to seek medical help.

It’s very important that those who have moderate symptoms stay at home, rather than flood emergency rooms. Medical providers need to be able to concentrate on the seriously ill, and the vast majority — perhaps 80% or more — of people who come down with Covid-19, especially those under 50, will suffer symptoms that are no more serious than a bad cold or a mild flu.

The focus of this test is on two questions.

Question #1:

Do you currently have symptoms that may be due to COVID-19, particularly a cough, difficulty breathing, feeling feverish as well as, in some cases, diarrhea, muscle aches, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, or loss of taste or smell?

If you answer “yes”, this is the response:

Your symptoms may be due to COVID-19, although these symptoms may also be due to another type of cold or flu virus. Regardless of whether your symptoms are due to COVID-19 or another virus, the treatment is the same.

Question #2:

Do you have severe symptoms, such as feeling very ill, noticeably short of breath, chest pain, light-headedness or any other worrisome symptoms for which you would typically seek immediate medical attention at an urgent care or emergency room?

If you answer “yes”, this is the response:

Seek immediate medical care. If necessary, call 911. Otherwise call your primary care doctor, or local urgent care facility right away. If possible, call ahead when seeking care to ensure you follow appropriate protocols for minimizing infection spread.

Similar questionnaire-type tests are offered by the “CDC self checker” and the government of Ontario, Canada’s self-assessment test.

2. Pulse Oximeter


Emergency rooms measure the oxygen levels of COVID-19 patients with a device called a Pulse Oximeter.

Pulse Oximeters work by beaming different wavelengths of light through your finger once it’s inserted into the device. Hemoglobin (the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs) absorbs varying amounts of light and wavelengths of light depending on the oxygen content of the blood. The Pulse Oximeter provides the percentage of oxygen saturation in the blood.

The device will also show your heart rate. A normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from about 60 to 100 beats per minute, although athletes with a higher cardiovascular fitness will have a lower pulse.

  • Low oxygen levels may indicate that a coronavirus patient has pneumonia — and requires immediate medical attention — even before they feel a shortness of breath.
  • Normal oxygen levels could signal to patients that they don’t need to visit a hospital.

Doctors typically look for a range of 95 to 100% for healthy patients. Oxygen levels below 90% signal a clinical emergency, according to the World Health Organization.

COVID-19 patients can have pneumonia for days before they develop a shortness of breath. Low oxygen levels are a way to detect these cases earlier — without a coronavirus test or doctor’s visit, and that’s why Pulse Oximeters are a great diagnostic tool.

“We are just beginning to recognize that COVID pneumonia initially causes a form of oxygen deprivation we call ‘silent hypoxia’ — ‘silent’ because of its insidious, hard-to-detect nature,” Richard Levitan, an emergency physician, wrote in The New York Times.

Dr. Levitan said he has encountered COVID-19 patients at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan who were breathing more heavily to acquire enough oxygen without realizing they were doing so. A Pulse Oximeter could encourage patients to seek treatment before they reach that point.

Pulse Oximeter readings are sometimes fickle if you don’t keep your hands still, but the machine itself is “extremely reliable,” Levitan wrote in The Times, even if it isn’t “100% accurate.”

Tara Parker-Pope, the founding editor of Well, the New York Times’s award-winning consumer health site, wrote an in-depth article about home use of a Pulse Oximeter. Here are some of her salient observations:

  • The device works better with warmer hands than cold hands. And because oxygen levels can fluctuate, consider taking measurements a few times a day. Also try it in different positions, such as while lying flat on your back or while walking. Keep notes to share with your doctor if needed.
  • Most health technicians will place the device on the index fingers, but a study of 37 volunteers found that the highest reading came from the third finger on the dominant hand. A close second was the dominant thumb. So if you are right-handed, use the right middle finger. If you are left-handed, use the left middle finger. The difference between fingers is small, so if you prefer the index finger, that’s fine.
  • Dark nail polish can affect accuracy of the reading. Very long nails would make it difficult to insert your finger properly in the clip.
  • If your number dips to 92% or lower, you should check in with your doctor. But don’t panic. It’s possible that a home monitor could give a faulty reading or be used incorrectly, prompting a patient to seek care unnecessarily. If you or someone in your home shows a very low reading, you may want to test your device on a healthy person to confirm that it is working correctly and discuss it with your doctor.

The device is available in pharmacies and online, and costs between $30 and $100. Here are some examples found on Amazon.com:

Click images for more information.

Before you completely rely on a Pulse Oximeter, read Consumer Report’s pros and cons of relying on it as a COVID-19 infection assessment tool. Some notable comments:

  • Focus on the trend, not the specific oxygen saturation percent reading.
  • Some wearable wellness devices have built-in Pulse Oximeters, but they are likely to be even less accurate than home Pulse Oximeters.
  • You can get a sense of breathing efficiency without any kind of medical device by measuring your respiratory rate — the number of breaths you take per minute, which brings me to #3.
3. Respiration Rate

Measure your respiratory rate by counting how many breaths you take at rest in 30 seconds, and then multiply that by two to get your breaths per minute.

While you’re at it, you can measure your heart rate (pulse) by placing two fingers against your throat to find your pulse. Then count the beats while your smartphone ticks off 30 seconds. Multiply by two and you have your heart rate per minute.

I just did it. I’ve been sitting in a chair for about an hour, so my heart rate and respiration should be low, and they were:

  • Respiration rate: 6 breaths per minute
  • Heart rate: 54 beats per minute

Don’t be concerned if your respiration and heart rates are higher; they are for most people who do not exercise vigorously, or do breathe work or meditate.

According to the Cleveland Clinic:

  • The normal respiration rate for an adult at rest is 12 to 20 breaths per minute. A respiration rate under 12 or over 25 breaths per minute while resting is considered abnormal. (Oh well, I’m again abnormal.)
  • A normal pulse rate for a healthy adult at rest ranges from 60 to 80 beats per minute.

I did not find reliable information that ties a higher than normal respiration rate or heart rate, as reflected by the Cleveland Clinic above, to a possible COVID-19 infection. Nonetheless, I include it among the three tests you can take for coronavirus at home, because they provide yet two more data points that might indicate infection if other symptoms reviewed above are also present.

For either the respiration or pulse rate data to be useful, you would need to establish a baseline that you can compare subsequent measurements to. If, for instance, your baseline respiration is 12 breaths and pulse is 60 beats per minute and they start climbing up, without reverting back to baseline, this could indicate that you’re infected if other coronavirus symptoms are positive.

 

Your Takeaway: Test Yourself for Coronavirus

Remember these three things:

  1. Currently, an available at home test for coronavirus does not exits.
  2. Understanding both moderate and extreme symptoms of COVID-19 infection can help you make the decision to either ride it out as you would the flu, call your doctor, or go to the emergency room.
  3. Three tests to help confirm or deny the severity of your infection are online questionnaires, the Pulse Oximeter and your Respiration Rate.

 

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Joe Garma
 

I help people live with more vitality and strength. I'm a big believer in sustainability, and am a bit nutty about optimizing my diet, supplements, hormones and exercise. To get exclusive Updates, tips and be on your way to a stronger, more youthful body, join my weekly Newsletter. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

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