Nasopharyngeal Swab

Overview

What is a nasopharyngeal swab?

A nasopharyngeal swab, one type of nasal swab, is a test used to look for bacteria or viruses that cause respiratory infections. Your healthcare provider uses a swab to take a small sample of cells from your nasopharynx, the top part of your nose and throat. The long, thin part of the swab is made of flexible plastic or wire. There’s a tip on the end of the swab that absorbs a sample of fluid from your nasopharynx.

Who performs a nasopharyngeal swab procedure?

Your provider will do the test. Unlike some other nasal swab tests that don’t need to go very far into your nose, this is not one you can do yourself. Problems can happen if it’s not done correctly.

When is a nasopharyngeal swab test needed?

Your healthcare provider may do this test if they think you have a respiratory infection such as:

Why would my provider think I need a nasopharyngeal swab test?

If you have respiratory infection symptoms, your provider may suspect you have an infection. Respiratory infection symptoms include:

Test Details

How is a nasopharyngeal swab test done?

  • You tilt your head back so your nose is slightly up in the air.
  • Your provider puts a long swab into your nostril and keeps pushing it in gently until it gets to your nasopharynx. This is the top part of your throat.
  • While the swab is still inside your nose, your provider turns the swab and then takes it out of your nose. They may leave it in for a few seconds before slowly taking it out.
  • If they got enough of a fluid sample from one nostril, they don’t need to insert the swab into the other nostril. But if there was a problem getting a sample, they may try to get a sample from the other nostril.

How do I prepare for a nasopharyngeal swab test?

Usually, you don’t need to do anything to get ready for the test. If you are getting a COVID-19 test, you may be asked to blow your nose into a facial tissue right before the test.

What should I expect during a nasopharyngeal swab test?

Since the swab will be going from your nostril to just about where your ear is, it can be uncomfortable. It may make you gag or cough briefly.

What can I expect after a nasopharyngeal swab test?

Your sample will be placed in a container, which will be sealed. It'll be sent to a lab, where it will be studied. Your provider can tell you the results from the lab.

  • If you test negative, it means you don’t have the illness for which you were tested.
  • A positive result means you have the illness.

What are the risks of a nasopharyngeal swab test?

In some cases, people can get a nosebleed after the test. Rarely, a provider has to remove a broken swab from a person’s nose. Only a trained provider who understands the anatomy of your nasal cavity does the test to minimize the risk of complications. The test results could also be inaccurate if the test isn’t done the right way.

Results and Follow-Up

When will I know the results of the nasopharyngeal swab test?

You may find out your lab test results fairly quickly if the lab is near where you live. But if your sample has to be sent to another city, it could take longer. It also depends on how many tests the lab is processing at that time.

When you get your test done, they should give you an estimate of when your results will be ready. If you don’t hear from your provider by that time, follow up with them.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Although no one likes getting a nasopharyngeal swab test, the discomfort is temporary. The information the sample will give your provider will help them figure out what’s making you sick. Once you know what’s wrong, you’re one step closer to feeling better. When your provider knows what the problem is, they can give advice to get you back to better health.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/02/2022.

References

  • CDC. Interim Guidelines for Collecting and Handling of Clinical Specimens for COVID-19 Testing. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/lab/guidelines-clinical-specimens.html) Accessed 5/2/2022.
  • Koskinen A, Tolvi M, Jauhiainen M, Kekäläinen E, Laulajainen-Hongisto A, Lamminmäki S. Complications of COVID-19 Nasopharyngeal Swab Test. (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaotolaryngology/fullarticle/2779393) JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2021;147(7):672–674. Accessed 5/2/2022.
  • National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. Nasal Swab. (https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/nasal-swab/) Accessed 5/2/2022.

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