Many Americans have become accustomed to swabbing their noses when taking COVID-19 tests both at home and in doctors’ offices. Now, test makers are banking on influenza as a new frontier in at-home testing.
How do at-home flu tests work?
There are two options for DIY flu testing. Here’s what you need to know:
Get results from a lab: A test by LabCorp, which received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2022, checks for COVID-19, influenza A and B, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). It involves doing a nasal swab at home and then mailing the sample with the test kit’s prepaid shipping label to a lab for analysis. The lab then contacts you with results, usually one to two days after receiving the sample, according to LabCorp’s website.
Get results at home: In February 2023, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for a combined COVID and flu test by Lucira (which was acquired by Pfizer shortly after going bankrupt earlier this year). This test looks more like the at-home COVID test process that became common during the pandemic, with no outside labs involved. After taking a nasal swab sample and stirring it into the test kit’s sample vial, you find out within 30 minutes if you have COVID-19 or influenza A or B.
How accurate are they?
At-home rapid antigen COVID-19 tests that were popular during the height of the pandemic had a reputation for being less accurate. The FDA says that at-home COVID antigen tests are less precise than molecular tests (i.e., the PCR tests that needed to be done in a hospital or clinic), and false negatives may be more likely to happen, especially if the test is taken shortly after infection, leading the FDA to recommending doing a repeat test after a negative result.
But these new at-home flu tests combine the ease of home testing with the accuracy of a PCR test by targeting the genetic material of the virus — as opposed to rapid antigen tests, which look only for proteins on the surface of the virus.
In their annual influenza recommendations for children, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that at-home flu tests can be used on children as young as 2 years old, “but data on the use of these tests in pediatric patients is limited.”
“For drugs [or] diagnostic tests, the initial testing is often done in adults, which makes sense. But it does mean that sometimes we don’t find out until later how well things perform in children,” Dr. Adam Ratner, director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at New York University Grossman School of Medicine, explains to Yahoo Life.
Where can you get them? And how much do they cost?
The LabCorp test kit is available to order on the company’s website and costs $129 per kit.
The Lucira by Pfizer test kit is currently unavailable, but a Lucira by Pfizer customer service representative tells Yahoo Life that the company is “planning to have more stock available to be purchased this year,” and the LuciraPfizer.com website will be updated with buying options. The test was previously listed at $34.99 per kit, but it’s unclear if it will still be sold at that same price when it’s available, the representative says.
Cost may be a deterrent for many people, but Ratner says flu testing may eventually go the way of COVID-19, where cheap at-home testing options are more easily accessible.
“I think we are moving toward a place where that will be true for more than just COVID. I hope that there will be cheaper at-home tests for things like flu in the future,” he says. “I think for now it’s still a little expensive, a little unwieldy and a lot of parents I think may just decide that it is easier to do what they would have done in the past, which is go see the pediatrician.”
Donaldson Conserve, an associate professor in the department of prevention and community health at George Washington University, tells Yahoo Life that the higher price tag raises the question of equity in testing — something that has been an issue since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Individuals who are at a higher socioeconomic status are probably less likely to be taking the subway or public transportation and all those other factors that can increase the likelihood of being exposed to these viruses to begin with; and those individuals who are on the lower socioeconomic status who are probably more likely to be exposed may be unable to pay for a test like this,” Conserve says. “So it becomes a question of, who are these tests being made for? Because if it’s for the individuals who are most at risk, then it’s definitely not going to meet that purpose, given that they may not be able to afford these tests.”
Are they really necessary?
Ratner says that getting a flu diagnosis matters — particularly for people at higher risk of flu-related complications, such as those 65 and older, children under 5 and pregnant women. Doing so can help your doctor determine the best course of treatment, including antiviral drugs, which can help when given early.
While getting a diagnosis is important, it doesn’t have to be through at-home testing, however, according to Ratner. “It is good to know if a kid’s symptoms are from the flu or from COVID, just because you can intervene, but I don’t think there’s a situation where at-home testing is a must,” he says. “At-home testing is certainly more convenient and there are times that you may want to do that. But I think that for many things, the right way of doing it or the way that will end up saving the most time is through a doctor’s office.”
Looking ahead, Ramon Lorenzo Redondo, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that having “pipelines” in place for the development of new at-home test systems could be beneficial if a new virus — or another pandemic — emerges.
“With this plus many other tools that we are developing, I think we could at least handle it better if [there is] another pandemic,” Redondo says. “Imagine a new virus appears that creates another problem, then you have all these pipelines and tools that now can be developed sooner. So I think, in general, this is good to have and to improve handling of epidemics or pandemics.”