Where Can I Get a Flu Test?


A brown-haired woman lies in a room with her head propped up on a pillow. Her eyes look tired and swollen, and she's holding a tissue to her nose. Her other hand is on her forehead. She's wearing a grey/brown sweater, and her nail polish is berry-colored.
Summary
  • The flu — also known as the influenza virus — is a common respiratory illness that can be contracted at any time during the year.
  • Flu symptoms typically include nasal congestion, a sore throat, dry cough, and muscle aches.
  • The best way to determine if you have the flu, or a more serious condition, is to get a flu test. There are different types of tests, depending on your needs.
  • You can get a flu test at almost any medical facility — like clinics, doctors’ offices, and pharmacies. The type of test you get will vary from location to location, but they normally all work in the same way.

The flu is a common respiratory virus that infects around 49% of Americans each year.

Although it’s not usually a life-threatening disease, the flu is responsible for over 50,000 annual deaths.

Flu is common among very young children, adults, or people with comorbidities and compromised immune systems.

Early detection of the flu is key to getting the right treatment and preventing it from spreading to other people who may develop complications. The best way to detect the flu is by getting a flu test.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the different types of flu tests, as well as where to get them.

What is the Flu?

The flu — caused by certain strains of the influenza virus — is a common, contagious respiratory virus.

You can get flu at any time of the year, but infections usually peak during the winter and early spring — which is why it’s called flu season.

Flu is usually not life-threatening, but can cause long-term complications for patients with comorbidities. For some, the flu can — in fact — be fatal.

What are the symptoms of the flu?

If you’ve been infected with the flu virus, you may experience a wide range of symptoms that can last for up to seven days. These often include:

  • Sore throat

  • Nasal congestion

  • Dry, persistent cough

  • Muscle and body aches

  • Fatigue

  • Headache

  • Fever

  • Chills and sweats

You might mistake these symptoms for those of the common cold or even COVID-19, since they are very similar.

That’s why it’s always recommended to speak to your doctor and get tested if necessary.

A man is sitting up in bed with blankets wrapped around him as he holds a thermometer in one hand.

How Can I Get Tested for the Flu?

If you suspect that you’ve been infected with the influenza virus, the best way to be sure is to get a flu test. Here’s a look at the different tests:

Rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs)

RIDTs are the most common flu tests. They work by detecting parts of the virus in the body that may stimulate an immune response.

These test results are available quickly — in about 10-15 minutes — but are often not as accurate as other testing methods.

Because the rapid tests only detect parts of the virus, they may potentially show a false positive or negative.

RIDTs are the most common tests that can be done at home.

Rapid molecular assays

This type of test is used to detect genetic material of the flu virus in your body and is a bit more thorough than a rapid test.

The molecular assay test also shows results in 15-20 minutes. These tests are more trustworthy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Other testing methods

Other types of flu tests are called polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests, viral culture tests, and immunofluorescence assays.

Typically, the RT-PCR tests are the most accurate and take around 15-30 minutes to show results.

Assay-based tests are normally used to distinguish between different types of the flu, like influenza A or B.

Who Should Get Tested?

Any individual who is showing symptoms of the flu should consider getting a test.

Even if you don’t show symptoms but have been exposed to someone who has the flu, it might be a good idea to get tested.

Key Point: Who is at a Higher Risk of Complications from the Flu?

Most people who get the flu recover without serious complications. However, some groups are at a higher risk of developing long-term issues.

These include:

  • Children younger than five years of age, because their immune system hasn’t fully developed yet
  • Adults older than 65
  • People with compromised immune systems due to chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes, or diseases of the heart, kidneys, or liver
  • Pregnant people
  • A person who is up to two weeks postpartum

The best way to prevent contracting the flu and developing potential health issues is to get a flu shot before viral infections begin to increase. It’s recommended to get the shot ahead of the start of the flu season.

Where Do I Get a Flu Test?

There are a number of places where you can get flu testing done, depending on your personal preferences.

At-home tests

A popular way to do a flu test is by purchasing a rapid test from a local retailer or pharmacy. You can then test yourself at home.

Any rapid or PCR-based tests can be done at home.

It’s important to note that even though you will be collecting samples at home, you’ll often have to send these to labs for testing.

Although testing at home seems convenient, it’s not always recommended since people can easily make mistakes when collecting their samples.

You might also need to make an appointment to see your doctor if you require prescription medication.

From your healthcare provider

You can contact your primary healthcare provider or visit a clinic to get a flu test. They will perform the test on-site and send you your results once they’ve become available.

If you’ve tested positive for the flu, your healthcare provider can recommend treatment options to you immediately and provide you with a prescription for medication if you need it.

Depending on how busy they are, you might need to make an appointment to get tested beforehand.

Pharmacies

Some pharmacies offer flu tests on-site if they have stock. These work in the same way as getting tested at a medical facility like a clinic or doctor’s office.

Since you’ll be tested by medical professionals, you’ll also be able to access medication immediately without having to make another appointment.

A pharmacist stands in front of shelves of medication and refers to a tablet.

What Should I Expect When Getting a Flu Test?

If you’ve never been tested for the flu before, it can be helpful to know what to expect beforehand. You won’t need to do anything to prepare for the test ahead of time.

During the test, you or the person administering the test will need to take a sample of your nasal secretions.

It’s usually collected through the nasal cavity, but can also be obtained from the back of the throat. The sample is normally collected with a cotton nasal swab or via an aspiration technique.

You might experience a gagging or tickling sensation while the sample is being collected. This is completely normal and happens because the nasal cavity is so sensitive.

These sensations usually resolve as soon as the collection is over.

Where Can I Learn More About Flu and Treatment Options?

If you’re experiencing or are worried about your symptoms or test results, you can make a telehealth appointment at LifeMD. Speak to a board-certified physician or nurse practitioner from the comfort of your home, or anywhere.

Dr. Jonathan Guirguis

Dr. Guirguis attended Nova Southeastern University for medical school and stayed in South Florida to train in Internal Medicine. Born outside Chicago, he slowly made his way down south, settling in Texas with his wife and three children.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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