Wait, Should You Swab Your Throat for COVID-19, Too?
As you aim to keep yourself and your loved ones safe amid the current nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, testing remains an important measure to help prevent community spread of the virus. You might have seen buzz online about using your at-home COVID test to swab your throat along with the traditional nasal swab method, a move that reportedly helps detect viral particles in the throat before they reach the nose. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Testing)
Parallel to the growing buzz about throat swabbing on social media came the news from health officials in Israel recommending that patients swab both their throat and nose when COVID testing using a rapid antigen test kit. Israel's Ministry of Health recommends swabbing in the oral and nasal cavity to help better determine the presence of the virus whether you're showing symptoms or are asymptomatic — a potential game-changer in the fight against the fast-spreading and easily transmissible Omicron variant taking hold over many countries across the world.
That said, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expressly advised against throat swabbing. "The home antigen tests available today are only authorized using nasal swabs," the organization shared in a tweet on January 7, 2022. "We don't have any data yet suggesting throat swabs are an accurate or appropriate method for at-home tests." In a subsequent tweet, they wrote, "Use your at-home #COVID19 test exactly as directed to avoid invalid results or injuries."
So before you crack open that rapid test kit, you might be wondering if you should swab your throat and, if so, how exactly you should do it. (Pro tip: Here's how to spot fake COVID test kits.)
Should you swab your throat for a rapid test?
Currently, it seems experts are mixed — but the scientific argument for throat swabbing is there, particularly in the fight against Omicron, says Chicago-based internal medicine physician Vivek Cherian, M.D. "There is some research to support that the Omicron variant can be detected in saliva before it can be detected in the nasal passages. The idea behind this is that the Omicron variant may first start replicating in the throat — a possible explanation why sore throats are such a common initial symptom."
As for whether or not you should swab your throat, there's just not enough concrete info yet to give patients the green light, says Dr. Cherian. "Even if, intuitively, it makes sense [to throat swab], the FDA doesn't currently have data to show how accurate throat swabs are. Also, the currently approved rapid antigen tests have an extremely low false positive rate and a known risk for false negatives for nasal swabbing. But when it comes to throat swabs, we really don't have the data to know what the risk of false positives/false negatives are." (Read more: What You Need to Know About False Positive COVID-19 Test Results)
The rapid tests that are currently available aren't designed to be used in the throat — and because of that, there's the risk of accidental injury if you try to swab your throat, such as if a piece breaks off mid-swab or if you scratch or scrape your throat. "There's also a concern that people may accidentally injure themselves as a throat swab is a bit more challenging than a nasal swab," says Dr. Cherian. "Also, because the current rapid antigen tests were not approved for this method, there's always a chance that they can break off in your throat or accidentally cause an abrasion or puncture wound."
Avoiding any unnecessary injuries or health emergencies right now is key, so continue testing as directed until federal health officials recommend otherwise.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.