Are at-home COVID tests accurate? How can you get over COVID faster? Experts answer Yahoo Search users' top questions.

Covid test kit on peach-colored background
How accurate are at-home COVID tests? How can you get over COVID faster? Experts explain. (Photo: Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Even though we are entering our third pandemic winter, questions still come up about COVID, from wanting to know how long natural immunity to the virus lasts to how to get over a COVID infection faster, and whether you still need to quarantine after exposure.

Based on the top issues on the minds of Yahoo Search users, we’ve gathered the most pressing COVID-related questions people have — and found experts to answer them.

How accurate are at-home COVID tests?

Over-the-counter rapid antigen tests are “very sensitive,” Dr. Dean Winslow, infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Life.

Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees, telling Yahoo Life, that these at-home tests are “very accurate” at determining if contagious amounts of COVID are present in an individual. “Sometimes, they might be negative early in an illness, and a repeat test may be indicated a day or two later,” he says.

How long after COVID are you considered contagious?

This is generally determined by the severity of a person’s infection, according to Dr. Prathit Kulkarni, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Overall, for people without weakened immune systems, if the infection was mild overall or entirely asymptomatic, it is probably in the range of 5 to 10 days,” he tells Yahoo Life. “If the infection was more significant, and the person experienced shortness of breath, it is around 10 days.”

That said, in general, you want to use good judgment. “If you’re still having fevers, you could assume that you are still contagious,” Dr. Carlos Malvestutto, infectious diseases physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “You definitely have a virus that can still be passed on to others. If your symptoms have gone on for more than five days, but you no longer have a fever and everything is improving,” you may be in the clear. But the best way to know is to test.

However, “If you’re going to be meeting with family and are concerned about being in close contact with somebody who is vulnerable — immunocompromised, the elderly, on chemotherapy — I recommend using a home test to check yourself,” says Malvestutto. “And if you're still testing positive, you need to stay away from those vulnerable people.”

How long does COVID typically last?

That depends, say experts. “There is a wide range here,” notes Kulkarni. “Some fraction of people never experience symptoms. Others experience transient symptoms for a few days. Still others, a smaller percentage, might be hospitalized. And now in 2022, an even smaller percentage might require ICU care and/or have a prolonged illness.”

But in general, “A week or so in most patients,” says Adalja.

Winslow also points out that being vaccinated helps. “Individuals who are fully vaccinated and boosted tend to have milder symptoms and recover quicker than those who have not been vaccinated.”

How long does natural immunity from COVID last?

It’s highly variable, says Winslow. However, says Kulkarni, “Most believe that it is a minimum of three months, but it could be potentially longer than this. In addition, although immunity from any infection might be short-lived, the duration of protection against severe illness, if reinfection occurs, might be much longer.” He adds: “As always, if someone has a weaker immune system for any reason, these concepts might be different for that individual.”

But a previous bout with COVID doesn’t mean you’re protected from future variants. As Winslow points out, the Omicron variant — and its subvariants in particular — “commonly infect individuals who may have been previously infected with the original” strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Winslow adds that people who have had a natural infection and later receive the new bivalent COVID-19 booster “seem to have stronger and longer-lasting protection against the newer Omicron subvariants than those who have only received the vaccine.”

Even though antibodies — whether from a natural infection or vaccines — wane over time, “for most people under the age of 60, most of their antibodies will remain pretty good for a while,” Malvestutto says. He also points out that antibodies are just one part of the immune system. There are also memory T cells, and “when they get exposed to the antigen of the SARS-CoV-2, it stimulates the immune system to react.”

He adds: “That memory of the immune system is very long-lived. Our immune system is not just antibodies — it’s a very complex system.”

How long do you need to quarantine after COVID exposure?

If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, the CDC recommends immediately wearing a high-quality mask and testing at least five full days after you believe you were exposed — even if you don’t have symptoms.

If you test positive for COVID-19, stay home and isolate away from others in your household for at least five days, which is when you’re likely to be the most contagious, per the CDC. (If you’re sick but don’t yet have test results that confirm a COVID infection, you should also isolate, to be safe.).

Wear a high-quality mask if you have to be around others at home or in public places, and avoid travel and places where you can’t wear a mask. If you test negative, you can end your isolation, according to the CDC.

When can people kiss after COVID?

Expect to hold off on kissing for a while after a COVID infection. “Since the virus can be shed in respiratory and oral secretions for a couple of weeks after infection, it’s probably best to avoid ‘deep kissing’ for a few weeks,” says Winslow.

He adds: “After 10 days, perhaps a peck on the cheek would be relatively low-risk.”

How can you get over COVID faster?

Kulkarni explains that certain patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 may benefit from treatment with an antiviral medication. The prescription medication Paxlovid has been shown to “shorten the duration of symptoms and prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death in many cases, especially when given early,” says Winslow.

Malvestutto agrees that, for most people, Paxlovid is “very effective,” and points out that with the medication, timing is important: You need to start taking Paxlovid within five days of the onset of symptoms.

Resting, even when you start to feel better, is also key. “Even though your worst symptoms may be gone, you may be quite fatigued,” Mavestutto says. “Don’t think you’ll go back to 100% right away.” He adds: “Listen to your body. Take your time to really recover.”

What are the most common COVID symptoms?

The most common symptoms of acute COVID include fever, chills, muscle aches, sore throat, cough and congestion, notes Kulkarni. Keep in mind that these symptoms can overlap with the ones associated with other viral respiratory infections, such as the flu, “so patients should have a low threshold to test for COVID-19 if they have any of these symptoms,” says Winslow. In other words, if you’re feeling sick, it’s best to do a COVID test and not assume it’s the flu or a bad cold.

Some Yahoo Search users specifically asked: What are Omicron symptoms? Experts say they are the same as the ones listed above. However, compared to previous strains, people infected with Omicron tend to experience “more upper respiratory” symptoms and “less loss of taste and smell,” says Adalja.

Omicron is also a lot more transmissible than previous strains. “It doesn’t take much for transmission to happen,” says Malvestutto. “A short exposure in a closed space is enough for a large portion of people to get infected.”

What are long COVID symptoms?

Long COVID, also known as post-COVID conditions, can encompass a wide range of symptoms that can last for weeks, months or even years after the initial infection, according to the CDC. In general, Adalja says, they include “fatigue, brain fog and exercise intolerance.”

Although Malvestutto says that people with long COVID aren’t shedding the virus anymore, they’re still experiencing “different constellations of symptoms,” including neurological ones, such as difficulty focusing and memory issues, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath or joint and muscle pain. “Others feel very tired,” he says. “Or have an intermittent cough that just doesn’t go away.”

Some people are more vulnerable to long COVID, including those who experienced a more severe COVID illness, people with underlying health conditions and those who aren’t vaccinated against COVID, according to the CDC.

For the majority of people, says Malvestutto, long COVID symptoms will “subside gradually, but for some it’s extremely frustrating, because they just don’t seem to get back to their baseline, where they were before. There’s still a lot to learn about this. It’s important for people to not feel that they’re crazy. This is real.”

He adds: “Unfortunately, I’ve had lots of patients who are experiencing this. If you think you’re experiencing long COVID, reach out to your doctor.”

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