Historically, respiratory illnesses peak during the winter season. While experts predicted higher rates of respiratory viruses—like COVID and the flu—this season, respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, made an early entrance and filled hospital beds, creating the potential for a tripledemic. With at least three respiratory illnesses circulating that may have similar symptoms, it’s important to know testing options ahead of holiday gatherings.

According to a new survey conducted by Wakefield Research on behalf of Roche Diagnostics two out of three Americans are confused by the differences between polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, and rapid antigen tests—the two main types of tests to diagnose respiratory infections. They are likewise confused about when to use them.

However, at least a quarter of those surveyed, many of them parents, do know that the PCR test is the most accurate for detecting the virus that causes COVID-19. Adults with children in their household did slightly better, with 33% of them recognizing PCR tests as the correct answer.

“Before the pandemic, most outside of a clinical setting didn’t know that PCR testing was the most accurate in detecting viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, and there’s still room to grow that understanding,” says Jamie Phillips Deeter, PhD, infectious diseases scientific partner at Roche Diagnostics. “It’s important to know that PCR testing is the best option for early detection, when treatment is most effective.”

Flu antivirals are most effective within two days of symptom onset. COVID-19 antivirals can be effective within five days of symptom onset if symptoms are present.

Additional Survey Findings

Confidence in the PCR test also varied among different demographic groups and based on family composition, according to the survey. A majority of Gen Z (85%) respondents think PCR is not the most accurate test, compared to 71% of millennials, 69% of Gen X and 72% of boomers.

Many respondents (79%) also believe their doctor can order one diagnostic test to determine if they have the flu, COVID-19 or RSV. It is accurate that multiplex PCR tests can identify more than one illness with just one swab. Most physician practices, hospitals and laboratories provide a wide range of testing solutions based on the need.