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Does a COVID-19 Test Hurt?

photo of swab test
By Elizabeth Hanes, BSN, RNJune 26, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

If you’ve seen news footage of people being tested for COVID-19 by having a long swab shoved up their nose, you might rightly wonder if that process hurts. I suppose the answer depends on your personal pain tolerance, but – having personally undergone the flu swab test, which is very similar to the coronavirus test – I would say getting your nose swabbed falls under “weird” and “uncomfortable” more than “painful.”

Testing for COVID-19 requires obtaining a sample of secretions along the full path of your nasal cavity, from the nostril to where your nasal cavity meets the back of the throat. To obtain these secretions, a medical professional uses a thin, flexible six-inch swab, similar to a regular cotton swab (but a lot longer). The clinician quickly inserts the swab into the nasal cavity and pushes it all the way to the back of the throat before twirling it and removing it. The entire process takes mere seconds to complete.

But the fact that it’s quick doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable. Along the pathway, the swab can irritate sinus tissue or activate several nerves. In fact, the procedure literally should bring a tear to your eye as the swab stimulates the lachrymal nerve, which causes weeping. The swab also might tickle the vagus nerve momentarily, causing a gag reflex.

I wouldn’t call these sensations painful – just annoying or uncomfortable. Or weird.

Don’t put off a COVID-19 swab test out of fear about how unpleasant the procedure might be. Early diagnosis allows for earlier medical intervention if your condition worsens. Plus, if you have the coronavirus you need to know it so you can self-isolate to avoid spreading the virus to loved ones in your household and anyone else you encounter.

So, if you have symptoms of the coronavirus, such as a fever and dry cough, you should move past your fears of that long swab and get the test performed. You may feel a bit of discomfort for five seconds, but then again, your viral symptoms may have you feeling so miserable that a little nasal cavity tickling won’t matter much.


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