The COVID-19 pandemic paved the way for at-home flu tests. Here’s everything to know about this heated issue from medical professionals and where to buy flu tests that don’t require a doctor’s visit.
To put it mildly, things have changed a lot since the COVID-19 pandemic came along.
One result has been the increasing ability to complete lab tests from home. Since the use of at-home tests for COVID-19 became
Several at-home flu tests are still
The Lucira COVID-19 and flu test has also just received FDA approval for at-home use.
Since influenza viruses and flu vaccines have been around for many years, it might seem surprising that at-home flu tests weren’t already around.
At first glance, it sounds like a great idea — a simple swab, find out if you have the flu, and then you know whether you need treatment and whether to stay home from work or school.
While some parts of the world, such as Australia, Canada, and Europe do in fact have at-home flu tests on the market, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a more stringent regulatory process to approve medical devices being sold to the public.
There is a lot of
“Lab techs and physicians historically have gotten very worried about at-home testing,” says
The argument against it
While rapid flu tests such as the ones often performed in emergency rooms or doctor’s offices could be ideal for home use, they
According to one analysis of older studies conducted up to 2012, they have not been proven as accurate due to peoples’ varying sensitivities to these types of tests.
You could get a lot of false-negative tests, when someone does in fact have the flu and is contagious. The most accurate flu tests are the PCR tests, which must be sent to a laboratory before you can find out your results.
Some in the medical community are also concerned that people won’t get the same level of care or information as they would if they were evaluated in person by a healthcare professional.
It could also put increased demand for medications.
“If you have a huge uptick in positive flu cases because people start testing at home, you’re going to have a lot of people wanting to take Tamiflu who don’t necessarily need it,” says Dr. Jonathan Smith of Greenwood Pediatrics in Denver, Colorado. “This could lead to a Tamiflu shortage for the at-risk populations who really need the medication.”
He adds that it could be especially complicated with children because Tamiflu can have side effects.
“I wouldn’t typically prescribe it for say, an otherwise healthy 8-year-old who gets the flu,” he says. “But that’s a tough conversation to have with parents if their child has tested positive for the flu at home.”
There’s also accessibility and equity to consider. Smith says it could lead to inequitable distribution of resources and a certain part of the population getting the most care.
“If these tests are expensive and paid for out of pocket, you’re mainly going to have a certain population testing themselves at home,” says Smith. “Then these are the people calling their doctor with positive results, and getting access to Tamiflu or other resources that might be needed for the very sick who didn’t necessarily obtain these tests.”
The argument for it
“The whole lab testing model is shifting so you can get the power of a
“At-home tests are very useful tools that people have understood can help them manage their lives. It gives them choices,” he adds.
Some experts believe that at-home flu testing and telehealth follow-ups could lead to prompt care for those who need it most, such as older adults and people with weakened immune systems.
Many people are motivated by the autonomy of testing themselves at home and being more active decision-makers in their healthcare than they were before the pandemic.
Laura Cummings, PharmD, is also for it. “It would decrease the workload on walk-in clinics and therefore decrease the wait times for people with ear infections and other things that would require antibiotics,” she says. “By reducing the number of people with those symptoms in clinics, it will reduce the spread of those illnesses in waiting rooms.”
She also points out that people may be more likely to test themselves for the flu if it’s more accessible, which could empower people to make choices that help prevent the transmission of these viruses.
While the issue is complex and systemic change is hard (for instance, it took years for at-home pregnancy tests to become readily available), at-home flu testing seems like a promising addition to modern medical care.
And Dr. Jeff Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, is on board. “We are eager to continue advancing greater access to at-home infectious disease testing to best support public health needs,” he says.
At-home test for flu, RSV, and COVID-19
The Pixel by LabCorp was the first at-home flu test approved in the United States. This nasal swab can be completed at home (much like a COVID-19 home test).
It’s a PCR test, and the swab will be mailed back to the lab for testing. This means it is likely to be accurate, but you will not get immediate results like you do with an at-home COVID-19 swab.
The test can tell you whether you or your child have the flu, COVID-19, or RSV. This may be an incredibly helpful tool, as it is often hard to distinguish between the symptoms of COVID, the flu, and RSV.
Here’s a quick rundown of how the test works:
- After selecting your billing option (insurance or self-pay), you can order the kit from LabCorp’s website, and receive everything in a box in the mail within 1 to 2 days.
- Following the included instructions, you complete your nasal swab.
- Send your sample in the prepaid package back to the lab for testing. You should get results in 1–2 business days. At the moment, the kit is not available at pharmacies or in stores, although this could change in the future.
The cost is $0 upfront if you have insurance or $169 out of pocket (or if your insurance doesn’t end up covering the test).
At-home test for flu and COVID-19
The FDA has issued an
This is a molecular test with high quality results very similar to a PCR test.
Because — like all rapid tests — there is a risk of incorrect results, the FDA recommends that people who test negative but continue to have symptoms follow up with their doctor or get a lab-performed flu test.
However, there are a few bugs still being worked out before it seems likely the Lucira test will be easily accessible. For instance, the company has not yet updated its website with the at-home version of the test.
The product listed on their website is the point-of-care test intended for use in medical clinics. Additionally, shortly following FDA approval, the company declared bankruptcy. It is unclear how this will impact the production and distribution of their at-home COVID-19 and flu test.
Here’s a quick rundown of how the test works:
- You should eventually be able to order the test from Lucira’s website and receive your kit in the mail. It is possible but unclear if tests will be distributed in drugstores in the future.
- Following the included instructions, you complete your nasal swab.
- Within 30 minutes, you should have your results. Following the instructions provided will give you a clear interpretation of your results.
|Test||Price*||Availability||Tests for||Test type||Lab or physician reviewed|
|Pixel by LabCorp||$169||online||• Flu A&B|
|nasal swab, PCR||Yes — sample processed by CLIA-certified lab; physician review available|
|Lucira||$99||online||• Flu A&B|
|nasal swab, NAAT||No — you’re responsible for reaching out to your doctor|
When you are tested for the flu at the doctor’s office, hospital, or urgent care, you are being swabbed by someone who is professionally trained and you can be evaluated by a healthcare professional on the spot.
You usually get one of two things:
- a swab that is sent to a lab for a PCR test
- a swab for a rapid flu test (often called “point-of-care” testing) performed right in the office; results are typically available in about 15 minutes
Testing for the flu at home means you will have to complete the swab yourself, wait for your results, and schedule a telehealth visit or call your doctor to discuss your results.
While the rapid test is less accurate, it is very convenient for getting information quickly. Healthcare professionals can interpret the positive or negative result in light of a person’s symptoms, exposure, and current levels of flu in the area.
The first flu test for at-home use that has quick results (although it is a molecular test, which is not a “rapid test”) is the recently approved test by Lucira. Unfortunately, the availability of these tests is a bit unclear at the moment.
The most readily available at-home flu test is a PCR test by LabCorp, which means it will be sent to a lab.
This is fine if you aren’t super sick or high risk, but this kind of delay in care could be a problem in some cases. Someone who is part of certain higher risk populations might be better off getting a rapid test because they can be evaluated by a healthcare professional to decide if treatment needs to be started right away.
Rapid flu tests do not have a very high accuracy rate.
According to the
In spite of their propensity for false negatives, rapid tests can be a helpful tool in the medical setting. Instead of waiting hours for a PCR test, healthcare professionals can get a test result in 15 minutes and combine the test result with their examination and the patient’s history to make a treatment decision.
The Lucira test has rapid results, but tests for the virus in a different way. It is a molecular test, or NAAT, not a rapid test. A NAAT test is generally considered to have PCR-level accuracy.
The primary treatment available for severe influenza is Tamiflu, which is
Because of their relative inaccuracy, there is not a true rapid at-home flu test currently available in the United States. However, one newer
Are at-home flu tests accurate?
Because the Pixel by LabCorp, the most widely available at-home flu test, is a PCR test and not a rapid test, it is typically quite
The newer test from Lucira will deliver results in 30 minutes, and early studies showed a fairly high level of accuracy. Follow-up studies are anticipated.
There are a number of viruses out there that can be very hard to tell apart. The most common symptoms of these viruses are listed below:
|Influenza (flu)||• fever over 100.4 F|
• body aches
• sore throat
• dry cough
• runny or stuffy nose
• loss of appetite
• shortness of breath
• cough (especially one that gets worse over time)
• runny nose
• loss of taste or smell
• GI symptoms
• runny nose
• wheezing and difficulty breathing in severe cases
While there is some overlap, there are also characteristic symptoms that can help you determine what’s making you sick.
For instance, the flu is more likely to be accompanied by aches and chills. COVID-19 can be the hardest to pin down but is likely to include a cough and possibly loss of taste or smell. RSV will probably have you sneezing and blowing your nose a lot, and most commonly becomes severe in young children.
But, since each person is unique, it can be hard to tell these infections apart. The Pixel test could be an incredibly helpful tool for this reason, as it checks for all three in one test.
Can you get tested for the flu at Walgreens or CVS?
Yes, you can get a rapid flu test administered at a CVS Minute Clinic or at many Walgreens locations.
Both drugstores also offer COVID-19 testing. You can find testing locations near you via the CVS or Walgreens website. These tests may be covered by insurance or may have a co-pay associated.
Should I go to the doctor if I think I have the flu?
Many people recover from the flu just fine at home. Rest, hydration, and fever-reducing medications can help keep you more comfortable as you recover.
However, some people do develop more severe complications such as:
People at higher risk for severe cases of the flu include people over age 65, people under age 5 (and especially under age 2), pregnant people, and people with underlying conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.
Call a doctor if you have:
- a prolonged high fever
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- a productive cough that’s getting worse
- chest pain
- other symptoms that are concerning
They can help decide the best course of treatment, which may include coming in for a visit. If you are concerned your child has the flu, it’s a great idea to call their pediatrician.
Where can I buy an at-home flu test?
You can order the Pixel flu test kit from LabCorp On Demand’s website. Lucira has not yet updated its website for purchasing the at-home flu test, although its point-of-care test is available on the website.
Is there a test to tell if you have COVID or the flu?
There is one at-home test currently available that tests for COVID-19, flu, and RSV at the same time. This is the Pixel by LabCorp.
Additionally, Lucira recently got their at-home flu and COVID test approved. There are many at-home tests for COVID-19, and a healthcare professional can administer tests for COVID and the flu as well.
Is there a home test for RSV?
The first available at-home test for RSV is the Pixel nasal swab kit by LabCorp, which also tests for flu and COVID-19.
The Pixel by LabCorp is the first at-home kit to test for flu, RSV, and COVID-19, but you have to mail your swab into the lab.
The Lucira COVID-19 & Flu Test Kit is a completely at-home test, but is not yet available.
While there are many factors to consider, such as accuracy, impact on care, and distribution of medical resources, it is likely that at-home flu testing will become much more widely available in the near future.