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DIY Cheek Swabs: How Effective Are They Really?

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A medical personnel member takes samples on a woman at a "drive-thru" coronavirus testing lab set up by a local community center in West Palm Beach 75 miles north of Miami, on March 16, 2020. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)
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Los Angeles County is providing thousands of coronavirus self-testing kits to residents, but public health officials are leery of the shortage of data on whether this easier method ― in which an individual swabs his or her own cheek ― is as reliable as a less comfortable but well-established technique.

Coronavirus testing is commonly an unpleasant, even painful experience in which a health care provider pushes a torturously long swab up your nostril. President Donald Trump declared that submitting to the process was "a little bit difficult."

As an alternative, emerging research has investigated oral fluid tests, like those being conducted in L.A. County, with subjects generally required to cough in order to bring up virus-rich saliva before they swab their mouth or spit into a container. A non-peer-reviewed study of 65 patients in China reported that the detection rate of the novel coronavirus was higher in saliva than in other respiratory samples. But other studies have found that oral fluid tests aren't as accurate when people are not reminded to cough beforehand.

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