Should You Add a Throat Swab to Your Rapid Test? Experts Weigh In

A girl performs a mouth swab for a rapid Covid-19 test.

Getty Images

Should we be changing the way we use rapid tests? Experts are split. Some say we should be swabbing our throats as well as the inside of our noses. Others are urging people not to experiment. Here’s a look at the latest research:

Why some say you should perform a throat swab:

Swabbing the back of your throat, as well as your nasal passages, may increase the chance your rapid test detects the Omicron variant. At least that’s what some prominent experts say. That’s because virus particles may appear in the throat before reaching the nose. Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Mina tweeted that because symptoms are appearing earlier in people infected with Omicron “there is a chance the virus isn’t yet growing in the nose when you first test.” 

A study conducted in South Africa (which has yet to be peer reviewed) found that throat swabs performed better than nasal swabs at detecting Omicron — possibly because saliva contains higher levels of the virus. 
The practice of taking both samples for at-home tests is fairly common in Canada and the U.K., epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding told the Washington Post. The throat swab started gaining more attention after people began sharing their stories on social media about testing negative with a nasal swab and then testing positive after taking both a nasal and throat swab.

“This is a precautionary approach,” Feigl-Ding said. “It’s based on evidence and data, based on experts, based on not just single anecdotes, but many anecdotes, and based on other countries.”

Why others say you should just stick to a nasal swab:

The FDA has warned against the practice. The agency said taking a throat swab is more complicated than taking a nasal swab, and if done incorrectly, could harm the patient. Plus, some testing experts say more research still needs to be done on the dual-sample method. 

Dr. Matthew J. Binnicker, the director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., also told the Post that “other bacteria or viruses or inhibitors in the throat” could “cause the test to perform differently than it would from a swab in the nose.”

What’s the right way to take a throat swab?

Here are some key things to keep in mind. First, make sure not to eat or drink 30 minutes prior to the test. Make sure to wash your hands. Then stand in front of a mirror, open wide, and stick out your tongue. Swab across both tonsils and the top of the very back of your mouth for several seconds, while avoiding contact with your teeth and tongue. Then swab your nasal passages. 

For more guidance, check out this how-to video created by the U.K. Health Security Agency.