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Screening tests are medical tests that check for symptoms early so that doctors can catch conditions and initiate treatment before they advance. In almost all cases, diseases are easier to treat when discovered early in their progression, so screening tests are an essential part of ongoing care.

Some screening tests are simple and can be done in a doctor's office, while others require more specialized equipment.

What Is a Screening Test?

Screening tests are usually performed on people who are at risk of developing a specific disease based on some of their health or lifestyle characteristics.

A screening test does not deliver a diagnosis. People who have positive screening results typically require more in-depth diagnostic testing to determine if they have the condition and if and how to treat it.

A woman wearing white coat and white medical gloves holding a urine sample in his hand
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Timing and Accuracy

Having screening tests at the appropriate time can detect potential problems. Doctors recommend many screenings for patients of a certain age or who meet certain risk factors.

Screening tests should minimize confusing or unclear results, but people with very rare diseases or who are not at high risk for a disease may get ambiguous results. Some pre-screening tests are more straightforward and reliable than others.

Female doctor and patient talking in exam room Thomas Barwick / Getty Images
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Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that travels through the blood and helps the body make vitamin D, cell membranes, and some hormones. The liver makes all the cholesterol the body needs, but people also get cholesterol from food. High cholesterol levels in the blood can be dangerous as they increase the risk of heart disease, among other things.

A cholesterol screening is a blood test that measures both good and bad cholesterol to determine a person's risk of developing heart disease. However, it is important to remember that heart disease can develop even if cholesterol levels are normal.

Doctor holding a bottle of blood sample in lab. utah778 / Getty Images
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Pap Smear

A Pap smear is a test that looks at a sample of cells taken from a woman's cervix. It can detect cervical cancer years before symptoms appear, when it is still easily treatable. Doctors recommend Pap smears for women under 65 who are sexually active, and it is usually done alongside human papillomavirus (HPV) screening as HPV is the most common cause of cervical cancer.

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Mammogram

A screening mammogram involves taking multiple images of each breast to detect tumors that cannot be felt with a regular breast exam. Screening mammograms can uncover many other things, too, including dense or mixed breast tissue, cysts, and calcifications.

If a screening mammogram uncovers anything abnormal, the next step is a diagnostic mammogram, which uses the same machine and technique to take more detailed images.

Woman getting mammogram kali9 / Getty Images
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Color Cancer Screenings

There are many screening tests for colon cancer.

Colorectal cancer screenings typically start when patients are between 45 and 50, and doctors recommend different tests at different times and frequencies. These include a colonoscopy to assess the entire colon every 10 years, a sigmoidoscopy to assess the lower part of the colon every five years, and a fecal occult blood test to check for blood in the stool every year.

Doctor gastroenterologist with probe to perform gastroscopy and colonoscopy robertprzybysz / Getty Images
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Diabetes

All adults, regardless of risk factors, should have prediabetes and type 2 diabetes screening at age 35.

Pregnant women should be screened for diabetes at their first prenatal visit and for gestational diabetes between weeks 24 and 28 of their pregnancy. These are the 2022 guidelines from the American Diabetes Association and have changed slightly in recent years.

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Prostate-Specific Antigen

A prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening measures PSA levels in the blood, which can be elevated in men with prostate cancer.

Many other conditions can cause elevated PSA levels, too, and there is some controversy about how useful this screening is. It is not recommended for all men but can be exceptionally useful in men with a high risk of developing prostate cancer. Men should discuss with their doctor whether a PSA screening is necessary.

Blood sample of patient for PSA test in laboratory
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Blood Pressure

A blood pressure screening is an important measurement of general health, and recommendations for having this test vary depending on age and risk factors. Between 18 and 40, people with a history of normal blood pressure and no risk factors for heart disease should have their blood pressure checked every two to five years.

Everyone over 40 and younger people with an increased risk of hypertension or high blood pressure should be tested every year. If a patient's screening demonstrates a pattern of hypertension, doctors will develop a treatment plan, and the patient's blood pressure will need to be checked more often.

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Depression

A depression screening helps determine if someone has depression. Depression is a very common and serious illness and can affect a person's ability to function at home and work.

These screenings can assess for multiple types of depression, including major depressive disorder, postpartum depression, seasonal affective disorder, or bipolar depression.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.