What Does an Inconclusive COVID-19 Test Mean?

By Arielle Mitton
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
December 3, 2021

There are several reasons to get a COVID-19 test.

Maybe you’re sick with flu-like symptoms, or you spent time around someone who was infected with the virus.

Or, you may decide to get tested for COVID-19 if you’re planning a trip or want to make sure you’re not sick before seeing a loved one. 

No matter why you’re getting tested, a COVID-19 test can help you determine if you’re infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

There are a few types of COVID-19 tests that function differently, and they work differently.

Taking a COVID-19 test can help aid in deciding whether or not you are infected, however, the tests are not always accurate and can be inconclusive.

Here’s what to know about what inconclusive results from a COVID-19 test mean, what to do next, and more.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Testing Basics

If you’re sick with coronavirus symptoms, you were exposed to the virus, or you’re preparing to travel, you may want to get a COVID-19 test.

While all COVID-19 tests can help to determine if you’re infected with the virus, there are different types of tests that work in different ways.

Most COVID-19 tests use nasal swabs to collect a sample of mucus, while others collect samples from the saliva in the mouth or the throat.

Rapid tests, also called antigen tests, detect whether your mucus contains viral antigens or proteins found on the surface of the virus.

Antigen tests offer the quickest turnaround time, yielding results often within minutes (much like a pregnancy test).

However, accuracy can be a problem with antigen tests and these tests are more likely to have false negatives (meaning a person infected with the virus might have an incorrect negative result).

Molecular tests for COVID-19, also called PCR tests, viral RNA tests, or nucleic acid tests, look for genetic material of the virus itself.

Usually, test results take a day or two, though they can take hours. 

False positives are rare with both tests, though false negative results do happen, and occur more commonly with antigen tests than molecular tests.

However, antigen tests are still very commonly used due to the relative ease and fast turnaround time.

If testing for concerning symptoms, it would be worthwhile to perform a PCR test if the antigen test is negative. 

Inconclusive results, on the other hand, are something different entirely. More on that below.

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What Do COVID-19 Test Results Mean?

After you get a COVID-19 test, you can get one of three results. 

  • Positive: Positive COVID-19 test results mean SARS-CoV-2 or antigens were detected in your mucus sample, depending on the type of test you got. 
  • Negative: A negative result means neither of these were detected at that point in time.
  • Inconclusive: There are also rare occasions when a lab cannot interpret a test result, in which case people can get an inconclusive test result. If for some reason the laboratory could not interpret your test — like if the mucus sample wasn’t enough to test, you have a new infection, or you’re close to recovery — your results may be inconclusive.

What to Do After an Inconclusive Result

It can be frustrating to get an inconclusive result after you get tested for COVID-19.

No matter what your reason for deciding to get tested for COVID-19, if you got inconclusive results, you should go back and get another test.

Continue to self-isolate or follow the quarantine-related guidelines you were already following until you get your test results. 

If at any point you have further questions about what to do after inconclusive lab results, contact your health care provider or your local health department. 

When to See a Doctor

If you have a recent exposure to COVID-19 or you have any coronavirus symptoms, it’s a good idea to get tested.

Pharmacies and clinics often conduct COVID-19 testing.

You can also contact your local health department to learn more about COVID-19 testing in your area. 

You should also see a doctor if you’re sick with flu-like symptoms that are either worsening or not improving.

Seek emergency care immediately if you or someone you know experiences: 

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion 
  • Inability to wake or remain awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue skin, lips, or nail beds

While these symptoms can be a sign of a medical emergency, they’re not the only symptoms that should prompt you to seek care.

Your doctor or a K Health doctor can give you more information about any other signs or symptoms that should concern you. 

How K Health Can Help

If you are concerned that you may have covid, it’s important to talk to a doctor.

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a false positive result happen with COVID-19 tests?
The specificity of COVID-19 tests is high, which means they’re unlikely to show a false positive result. However, conducting the test incorrectly or lab contamination could potentially create a false positive. If you’re concerned about your test results, talk to your health care provider about getting tested again.
Are at-home COVID-19 tests accurate?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), self tests (also called at-home tests) can be used by anyone with COVID-19 symptoms or asymptomatic individuals who were exposed to COVID-19. If you use an at-home COVID-19 test, make sure to fully follow the instructions on your test kit.
Is an inconclusive COVID-19 test the same as a negative?
No. An inconclusive COVID-19 test means the lab reviewing your mucus sample could not interpret the results. If the lab does not detect SARS-CoV-2 or antigens, then your test will be negative.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Arielle Mitton

Dr. Mitton is a board certified internal medicine physician with over 6 years of experience in urgent care and additional training in geriatric medicine. She completed her trainings at Mount Sinai Hospital and UCLA. She is on the board of the Hyperemesis Research Foundation to help women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum.