Viral illustration shows one type of Covid-19 sampling method

30 June 2020
What was claimed

An illustration shows that the Covid-19 test involves a swab going all the way to the back of the nose.

Our verdict

This illustration is from a medical imaging company showing a nasopharyngeal swab Covid-19 test. Not all tests are done this way.

We’ve seen a number of posts on Facebook and Twitter claiming to show an illustration of how a sample for a Covid-19 test is taken.

The picture was produced by a medical illustration company and shows a procedure called a nasopharyngeal swab. This kind of sample is a standard method of Covid-19 testing in the US, but it’s not the only type of test done in the UK.

As an aside, all the tests we discuss here are to check if someone currently has Covid-19, not whether there’s evidence they’ve had it previously.

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How do you provide a sample for a Covid-19 test in the UK?

It’s important to remember that these tests are over quickly, and although some may be uncomfortable, they should not hurt. You should always follow the instructions given to you by the medical professional testing you, or in the pack that comes with your test if you are doing it yourself.

If you get a self-swabbing kit for a Covid-19 test, you are given a swab (which is essentially a long cotton bud) to take samples from your nose and throat. This is a test most people can do themselves. The nose swab in this case is not the one in the illustration—it is taken just inside one of your nostrils. No force is needed and you do not have to push far into your nostril. You can watch a video demonstration of that process here.

Another type of sample involves a throat and a slightly different method of nose swabbing. This nose swab isn’t the type in the illustration shared on Facebook either. To collect this sample, the swab is inserted gently into the nostril 2.5cm (1 inch) or until some resistance is felt. The government advises those testing not to “insert the swab any deeper if there is strong resistance or pain.”

There is another type of sample: called nasopharyngeal aspirate, which can be used for testing. This is where a mucus sample is taken from the top of the throat via a plastic tube called a catheter inserted up the nose, and a suction machine. Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital says this is the only Covid-19 test suitable for children under the age of two.

Nasopharyngeal swabs, like the one in the illustration, involve having a swab inserted much further back than the nasal swabs described above.

All of the tests mentioned above involve samples taken from the upper respiratory tract, but samples taken from the lower respiratory tract can also be tested. These tests involve collecting sputum, which is phlegm coughed up from the lungs. This kind of sample can be taken from patients producing sputum or who are intubated (when a tube is inserted into the throat to help someone breath).

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