A screening test is done to find possible health problems or diseases in people who don't have any symptoms of disease. The goal is to find a problem early enough to lower the risk for the disease. Or to find it early enough to treat it before it gets worse.
Healthcare providers don’t use screening tests to diagnose disease. But screening tests help find people who may need more testing to find out if they have a disease or other health problem.
A screening test is helpful when it can clearly find a possible problem. A screening test works when the results clearly show that there is or isn’t a problem. Screening tests are not 100% accurate in all cases. But having them as recommended by your healthcare provider is better than not having them at all. Some screening tests can cause more problems than they help if used in people who aren’t at high risk for disease, or for very rare diseases.
Talk with your healthcare provider about when to get screening tests. Your provider will base the schedule on your age, overall health, and health history. Below are some examples of common screening tests.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that can be found in all parts of the body. It helps your body make cell membranes, some hormones, and vitamin D. The cholesterol in your blood comes from 2 sources: from the food you eat and from your liver. But your liver makes all of the cholesterol your body needs.
Cholesterol and other fats are carried in the bloodstream as spherical particles called lipoproteins. The 2 most commonly known lipoproteins are low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, and high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or "good" cholesterol.
Cholesterol screening is done with a blood test. If your cholesterol results are high, you have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease than people with cholesterol in the normal range. You can lower your risk for heart disease by lowering your cholesterol. But keep in mind that you can still have heart disease even with cholesterol levels in the normal range.
Fecal occult blood is found by looking for it with a microscope or by using chemical tests for hemoglobin (blood) in the stool. People with blood in their stool may have a growth that may be colorectal cancer. For the test, you collect 3 stool samples. The samples are looked at under a microscope for blood.
Blood in the stool may be caused by things other than cancer. It may be caused by certain medicines or foods, bleeding in your digestive tract, or hemorrhoids. The American Cancer Society recommends starting this test at age 45 if you are at average risk for colorectal cancer.
Pap tests, or Pap smears, are samples of cells taken from your cervix. The sample is looked at under a microscope to check for any changes that might mean cervical cancer. The Pap test is an important screening test in sexually active women younger than 65. It can find cancer at a stage when there are often no symptoms. Even if your Pap results are abnormal, that may not mean you have cervical cancer. Some expert groups also recommend that certain women get screened for HPV (human papillomavirus) at the same time as the Pap test is done.
This blood test measures the prostate specific antigen (PSA) levels in the blood. Antigens are any substances that make your immune system react. PSA levels can be higher than normal if you have prostate cancer. But other problems can cause a high PSA level. These include benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). BPH is not cancer. It is when your prostate swells. The PSA test is not recommended for all men. Expert groups disagree on whether the PSA test is needed. Some groups, such as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), now recommend against PSA screening. Talk with your healthcare provider about the pluses and minuses of PSA screening. Some of the cons include unneeded testing and procedures, extra costs, and much more anxiety.
Many expert groups, including the USPSTF, recommend mammograms for breast cancer every 1 year to 2 years after age 50. This test is done in along with a clinical breast exam
For people at average risk, the American Cancer Society recommends that colorectal screening start at age 45. Other organizations, including the USPSTF, say you should start screening at age 50.
Multiple tests are available and are used at different times. They are:
Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years
Colonoscopy every 10 years
Fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test every year
Stool DNA test every 3 years
You will need a follow-up colonoscopy if you choose any other test but colonoscopy and have an abnormal test result. Talk with your healthcare provider about which tests are best for you.
Some people should be screened using a different schedule because of their personal or family history. Talk with your doctor about your health history.
The American Diabetes Association recommends that all adults be screened for diabetes or prediabetes starting at age 45. This is true no matter how much you weigh. You should also get screened if you are overweight or obese and have one or more other risk factors for diabetes.
Talk with your healthcare provider about all of these tests, as well as other types of screening tests. Not all providers agree on which screening tests should be done and for which age groups.