The truth about testing for COVID-19: Advice from a swabber

Fears and anxieties inherent to daily life have heightened in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fears about contracting the virus, spreading the virus and COVID-19 testing are prevalent. 

Some misinformation has been circulating regarding what to expect when a COVID-19 test is performed. The misinformation enhances many people anxieties and leads to confusion. 

Many people (who have not been tested) report that the test is painful. Others claim it touches or swabs the brain. Both are inaccurate descriptions. 

The most common COVID-19 test is nasopharyngeal — a swab in a nostril toward the back of the throat. The swab does not enter the sinus passages or touch the brain. It extends down (not up) the nasal passage to the wall of the nasopharynx (end of nasal passage). 

The swab takes 10 to 15 seconds and is performed by a trained health professional — often a nurse. The swab is inserted approximately seven centimetres in adults, about four centimetres in children, and less in infants. (Each person’s anatomy is a little different and the length required differs from person to person.)

The swab tests nasal secretions/cells for presence of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

The hype leading up to the swab is worse than the swab itself.– Andrea Thomson

During the swab, many people will scrunch their nose or squint their eyes. Some people feel like they need to cough or sneeze. Nearly everyone’s eyes water afterwards. These reactions are not due to pain — they are reflexes.

In fact, after a swab the most common statement we hear is “it was not that bad” or “that felt weird.” The sensation is often described as water in the nose, which subsides when the swab is removed. The hype leading up to the swab is worse than the swab itself. 

Risks

Risks associated with a nasopharyngeal swab are low. Most people, including children, walk away without adverse reactions. After the swab, some people’s nasal passages may feel irritated or may bleed lightly; however, this is uncommon. 

Horror stories have been reported that nasal swabs penetrate people’s brains. These stories are fiction. The swab does not penetrate the brain. It would take significant force for this to happen and is next to impossible, as the swab itself is flexible and plastic. 

In fact, following collection, the swab stick is easily bent and broken off. The tip is then placed in a storage solution so the cells stay preserved prior to laboratory testing. 

What to do

Given the misinformation circulating, it is understandable that some people may feel anxious prior to a swab. 

If multiple members of the household need to be tested, the person who is the most anxious should be tested first. That’s because it looks worse than it feels, so watching a loved one’s swab may increase anxiety. 

Do not fear your friendly neighborhood swabbers.– Andrea Thomson

Watching the inaccurate YouTube videos of the swab process prior to your visit is often unhelpful as well. 

Typically, the most anxious person is a young one — a child.

Parents, hold your child on your lap and give them a hug while the swab is being performed. Remember, it is only 10 seconds. 

Lineups

Another reason why people worry about testing is concern related to long linesups and wait times prior to getting tested. This is not always the case.

There have been instances where testing sites are client-free. Innovative measures are being taken to help increase testing capacity across regions so that you do not have to wait in line and if you do, the wait is as short as possible.

Practices and procedures are being updated on a regular basis to meet the needs of Canadians. 

Last words

Do not fear your friendly neighborhood swabbers and swabbing sites. 

Many people prefer to access the drive thru sites, which may result in a longer wait time. The walk-in locations are enforcing safety precautions such as mandatory masks and distancing. 

Everything from pens to chairs are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized in between all clients. When there is a wait, you may be asked to wait in your car for a period of time prior to your test. Everyone’s health and safety is a priority. 

Remember, processes vary throughout Canada. Please consult your region’s guidelines and support lines for more information. 

Masks are a great way to keep yourself and your loved ones safe. Practise good hand hygiene, cover your coughs and sneezes, and isolate as indicated. 

As it is getting colder out, remember to wash items like mittens, gloves and scarves often.

Andrea Thomson is a registered psychiatric nurse with Brandon University.


This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.