Terminology for COVID-19 Tests

COVID-19 Tests

COVID-19 testingAlthough we have been dealing with COVID-19 testing since early spring, the tests still seem confusing and complicated.

We have heard them referred to as the good test, quick test, nose/throat test, spit test, and more.

So, what are the proper names of the tests, and why and how are they performed? Let’s take a look.

Refer to the medical term definition and abbreviation list at the bottom of the post as needed.

Diagnostic Tests for COVID-19

Molecular and antigen are the two tests used to diagnose an active coronavirus infection.

Molecular Test

  • commonly referred to as PCR test
  • diagnoses active infection by detecting the virus’s genetic material
  • a nasopharyngeal (NP) swab is preferred to collect the specimen
  • test results can take one to two days since laboratory analysis is required
  • most tests being done in the United States right now fall into this category
  • also known as viral test, NAAT, RT-PCR test, LAMP

COVID-19 Testing


Antigen Test

  • commonly referred to as rapid test
  • diagnoses active infection by detecting specific proteins on the surface of the virus
  • a nasopharyngeal or nasal swab is used to collect a specimen
  • test results can take minutes to hours because they do not need to be analyzed at a laboratory
  •  better for screening populations than diagnosing individuals.; tests are faster, cheaper, and less accurate than molecular tests
  • also known as rapid diagnostic test (RDT), rapid antigen test


Test to Detect Antibodies

Antibody Test

  • detects specific antibodies which are special proteins your immune system produces to fight the virus in your blood
  • shows if you have been infected by a coronavirus in the past
  • specimen finger stick or blood draw
  • test results are available the same day in many locations or 1-3 days in other locations
  • useful for screening populations, not individuals; used to help tract the pandemic
  • also known as serological test, serology blood test
Antibody Test, COVID-19
Blood specimen for the COVID-19 antibody test.

Definition of Medical Terms

Coronavirus: another name of COVID-19; they are used interchangeably in this post

Molecular: adjective for molecule which means “extremely minute particle,” from the Latin molecula, “tiny mass”

Antigen: a toxin or other foreign substance which induces an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies

Antibody: a blood protein produced in response to and counteracting a specific antigen

Serology: diagnostic examination of blood, with regard to the response of the immune system to pathogens

Nasopharyngeal: pertaining to the nose and throat

Viral: pertaining to virus


PCR: polymerase chain reaction

NAAT: nucleic acid amplification test

RT-PCR: reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction

LOOP: loop-mediated isothermal amplification

NP: nasopharyngeal

I hope this information is helpful as you navigate your way through the COVID-19 pandemic. May you stay safe and well.

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