First: Don't panic. Second: Call your doctor.

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As the cases of COVID-19 in the US continue to rise—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 1,200 people within the US are confirmed as having coronavirus—the government is attempting to keep up by making some major changes to the criteria used for coronavirus testing.

Under CDC guidelines updated March 8, doctors may consider COVID-19 testing for anyone who has a cough, fever, or difficulty breathing. That's a pretty big difference from previous guidance, which only qualified patients for diagnostic testing if they had been hospitalized, come into contact with a coronavirus patient, or had traveled to places where the disease was prevalent.

The new guidelines are a step up for increased COVID-19 testing across the US. However, with rising demand for testing and a shortage of test kits, per the The New York Times, many suspected cases of COVID-19 have yet to be verified.

As testing continues to expand, it's also important for US citizens to make informed decisions about their own health—and that means knowing the symptoms of coronavirus, your proximity to those infected with the virus, and your overall need to have a doctor evaluate you based on your risk of contracting COVID-19. Remember: Just because testing will be more widely available doesn't mean it's necessary for everyone—especially since the CDC maintains that, for the general public, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is low.

What to do if you think you have coronavirus

According to the CDC, if you experience any symptoms related to coronavirus—cough, fever, or difficulty breathing—and believe you have been exposed to the coronavirus, your first step is to call ahead to your healthcare provider. That gives the provider's office time to take steps to to keep other people from being exposed and infected before examining you. If you do go to a doctor's office while experiencing symptoms, you're advised to wear a face mask (but it's truly then and only then—the average healthy person will not gain protection from the coronavirus by wearing a face mask).

Your doctor will then assess your symptoms and any epidemiological risk factors you may have, which can help their testing decision process. Those risk factors, per the CDC, include: "any persons, including healthcare workers, who have had close contact with a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patient within 14 days of symptom onset, or a history of travel from affected geographic areas [the CDC specifically points out China, Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea] within 14 days of symptom onset."

Doctors have also been instructed, per the CDC, to use their best judgment regarding the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 before issuing a green-light for diagnostic testing, and to exhaust other testing options (including those for influenza and other respiratory illnesses) first. That means, if you and your doctor are concerned about a potential COVID-19 infection, you will likely be tested for the flu, since the two infections have very similar symptoms.

Keep in mind, too, that these guidelines are only intended to guide clinicians in their evaluation of patients. Doctors may decide whether or not testing is warranted based on infections in an area and known community transmission, for example.

CDC is advising clinicians that mildly ill patients "should be encouraged to stay home and contact their healthcare provider by phone for guidance about clinical management," while patients having severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, "should seek care immediately. " CDC adds that older patients and people who have underlying medical conditions or who are immunocompromised should contact their physician early in the course of their illness, even if it's mild.

What happens if you have to get tested for coronavirus

Once your doctor and other public health officials decide that it's a good idea to test you for coronavirus, you will have respiratory samples taken and sent to a lab equipped with COVID-19 test kits. (FYI: Doctors cannot test for coronavirus on their own and must refer patients to state or local laboratories, per The New York Times.)

The patient's part of the test itself is similar to a rapid flu test, which also uses swab samples from the nostrils or throat. "Testing for the novel coronavirus involves collecting samples from the respiratory tract, such as from the nasopharynx [the upper part of the throat behind the nose], the throat, or sputum [a mixture of saliva and mucus from the respiratory tract]," Marie-Louise Landry, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease expert and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology Laboratory, tells Health.

Rear view of woman doctor specialist holding buccal cotton swab and test tube ready to collect DNA from the cells on the inside of a woman patient.
Credit: Adobe Stock

Once a swab sample is collected and shipped off to a lab equipped with COVID-19 test kits, lab technicians use a procedure called RT-PCR, or reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, to look for the coronavirus, according to CNN. Essentially, the test can tease out the coronavirus' genetic code and amplify it within a patient's specimen to determine a positive test result. The COVID-19 test can only determine if an individual is currently infected and will not diagnose any prior illness.

It should be noted that, as of March 11, CDC and private health laboratories had tested just over 11,000 specimens. South Korea, by contrast, reportedly has the capacity to conduct roughly 10,000 tests per day.

Some labs say they can provide test results in 24 to 48 hours, during which patients will likely be kept in quarantine or asked to self-quarantine. People with a confirmed or presumptive positive (when state laboratories have tested a patient positive for coronavirus but the CDC has not yet declared it) are then placed under active monitoring or facilitated self-monitoring and instructed to follow instructions provided by those they're receiving medical care from until they're no longer deemed a risk to the public.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.