Still Testing Positive for COVID-19? Here’s What to Know

Still Testing Positive for COVID-19? Here’s What to Know

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When you’re feeling sniffly, congested, or run down, you may be experiencing COVID symptoms and it’s a good idea to test yourself for COVID-19, especially in the midst of new variants like EG.5 (Eris) and BA.2.86 (Pirola). But if you test positive for COVID, you may continue to test positive for a while, maybe even weeks after your initial infection. So after you’ve recovered from your latest bout with the virus, how long can you test positive for COVID-19?

There are actually many reasons why you may continue to test positive long after you come in contact with COVID—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re still contagious. We’ve consulted infectious disease experts to help us better understand this still-testing-positive phenomenon and if and when you should still be isolating after retesting.

Why are you still testing positive for COVID-19?

It’s important to note that most people don’t need to retest for COVID if they follow isolation procedures for 10 days, says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. But if you’re still seeing a positive line on your test after isolating, here are some possible reasons why:

You’re still shedding the virus

A person may test positive because they are still shedding viable virus, or it could be viral debris that is being picked up by the test, says Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Each person clears their test on a different time frame based on viral load, kinetics and host immune response,” he explains. So if you’re past the isolation period and you’re no longer experiencing symptoms, a positive test could simply mean that there are traces of the virus still in your system.

This cause can also depend on what kind of test you’re using, says Dr. Watkins. “The PCR test is more sensitive than the rapid test, but it can also keep picking up the virus well past the point when you’re contagious,” he says.

You still have the infection

It’s possible that you may still be feeling the effects of COVID, particularly if you have a weak immune system, says Dr. Watkins. Until you’re no longer experiencing symptoms, it’s best to play it safe and self-isolate to prevent spreading the virus.

You caught COVID again

This is a rare circumstance, but it is possible that since your initial infection, you’ve been in contact with the virus again and been re-infected with a new strain, says Dr. Watkins. While it’s very difficult to tell if this is the case, it’s best to still self-isolate until you’re no longer experiencing COVID symptoms.

Are you still contagious if you’re testing positive?

Again, it depends. Primarily, your contagiousness depends on if you are still having symptoms, says Dr. Watkins. “Most people aren’t going to be contagious after 10 days,” he adds.

Dr. Adalja agrees that some people may still be contagious if antigen positive (meaning still showing up positive on rapid tests), “but case contact investigation shows that it is very infrequent that someone transmits post-day six.”

When should you retest after testing positive?

As we said before, if you take precautions for 10 days, then you don’t need to retest, says Dr. Watkins. So if you’re feeling better and it’s been 10 days since your first positive test, you can safely resume your normal life without retesting.

However, if you want to end isolation early (maybe you have an important life event coming up and you are already feeling better), you can retest, says Dr. Adalja. So if you test negative before day 10, and you’re symptom-free, you can feel confident that you won’t be spreading the virus to others.

When should someone see a doctor after continuously testing positive for COVID?

If you are still testing positive but you aren’t showing any symptoms, there really isn’t a reason to see a doctor, says Dr. Adalja. On the other hand, if you are still having symptoms or if you have a history of immune system problems, it’s a good idea to consult your physician, says Dr. Watkins.

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