Health Screenings and Immunizations

What Are Health Screenings?

(Except where indicated, this information is drawn from resources developed by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.)

Checking Before You Have Symptoms

Health screenings are tests that look for diseases before you have symptoms. Screening tests can find diseases early, when they're easier to treat. Some conditions that doctors commonly screen for include

  • breast cancer and cervical cancer in women
  • colorectal cancer
  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • osteoporosis
  • overweight and obesity.

You can get some screenings, such as blood pressure readings, in your doctor's office. Others, such as a test for colon cancer (called a colonoscopy) need special equipment, so you may need to go to a different office.

Which screenings you need depends on your age, your sex, your family history, and whether you have risk factors for certain diseases.

Questions To Ask Your Doctor

(Source: National Institute on Aging)

Before you have a health screening test, ask your doctor these questions.

  • Why do I need the test? What will it show about my health?
  • What will it cost and will my insurance cover it?
  • What do I need to do to prepare for the test? (For example, do I need to have an empty stomach, or will I need to provide a urine sample.)
  • What steps does the medical test involve?
  • Are there any harms or side effects?
  • How will I find out the results of my test?
  • How long will it take to get the results?
  • What will we know after the test?

When the results are ready, make sure the doctor tells you what they are and explains what they mean. You may want to ask your doctor for a written copy of the test results. If the test is done by a specialist, ask to have the results sent to your primary doctor.

Blood Tests – A Common Screening Method

(Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)

Many screening tests involve blood tests. In addition to their use as screening tests in people with no symptoms, blood tests also can help diagnose conditions in people who do have symptoms. They can also show how well treatments are working.

Blood tests have few risks. The procedure usually is quick and easy, although it may cause some short-term discomfort. Most people don't have serious reactions to having blood drawn. Most complications are minor and go away shortly after the tests are done.

How Are Blood Tests Performed?

Many blood tests don't require any special preparations. For some, you may need to fast (not eat any food) for 8 to 12 hours before the test. Your doctor will let you know how to prepare for blood tests.

  • During a blood test, a small sample of blood is taken from your body. It's usually drawn from a vein in your arm using a needle. A finger prick might also be used.
  • Laboratory workers analyze the blood. They either use whole blood to count blood cells, or they separate the blood cells from the fluid that contains them. This fluid is called plasma or serum.
  • The fluid is used to measure different substances in the blood. The results can help detect health problems in early stages, when treatments or lifestyle changes may work best.

To find out more about blood tests, see What Are Blood Tests?

Other Screening Methods

Doctors can't screen for all diseases and medical problems with blood tests alone. Your doctor will need to consider other factors including your medical history or results from other tests and procedures.