As it gets harder and harder for Americans to get quick non-emergency appointments with their doctors, sales of do-it-yourself medical tests are soaring in addition to marketing in the medical spa industry.
The biggest increase has been in kits purchased via the Internet. Just Google “at-home tests” and watch the search results pop onto your monitor.
What exactly can you get these days? And which ones are really safe?
It depends mainly on the type of test and whether you use it as a screening device to see whether you should visit your doctor or to self-diagnose. Many at-home tests can reveal signs that should send you to the phone or help you track your progress in treating a condition. But sometimes they don’t really tell you exactly what the results mean or the action you should take.
According to the Fall 2007 issue of Remedy magazine, here are the most popular do-it-yourself options:
You perform this test by pricking your finger with one of the lancets in the kit. Then you put a few drops of blood on the device and wait a specified time, normally 10 to 15 minutes. You then check your reading against a chart provided to interpret your cholesterol level.
This kit might be helpful for those with a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease or those who just want to make sure they maintain good numbers. It can also assist individuals in trying to lower their numbers via diet and exercise.
However, most do-it-yourself cholesterol tests provide only your total cholesterol. They don’t differentiate between the harmful type (LDL) and the helpful type (HDL). According to Narinder Duggal, M.D., Pharm.D., clinical professor of pharmacy and therapeutics at the University of Washington in Seattle, knowing your full lipid profile is a more helpful way to measure for the risk of heart disease. He says a reading of total cholesterol at less than 200 could mean you experience “a false sense of security.”
You put a drop of your blood onto the test card provided. After three minutes, you compare the color of the test area to the color chart in the kit to determine whether your blood sugar level is normal.
These tests are actually designed to individuals who aren’t diabetics but are trying to ascertain their risk of becoming them. Diabetics use actual glucose monitors up to several times a day to test their glucose levels.
A screening kit is a good test for individuals with a family history of diabetes, according to Fiona Gallahue, M.D., a faculty member at New York Methodist Hospital in New York City. However, she points out if you eat before doing the test, your blood sugar level will register too high. Anyone using the test should fast for a minimum of nine hours first.
In addition, manufacturers state results can be off if you’ve experienced a serious health problem or surgery within the prior 90 days of if you’ve suffered from minor illnesses such as the flu or a gastrointestinal virus within 3 weeks.
To do this test, you hold the absorbent end of the wand in your first urine of the day for 5 to 10 seconds, depending on the actual kit you purchase. You then put a protective cap over this part of the wand and wait for 5 to 10 minutes for the results.
This type of kit measures the concentration of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) in the urine. For women nearing menopause, FSH levels usually remain high during the entire month. Levels in younger women fluctuate throughout their monthly hormonal cycles.
Women who are going through mood changes, decreasing libido, fluctuating menstrual cycles, or insomnia would be likely to purchase of this do-it-yourself kit. So would those with body temperature changes and breast tenderness. All are symptoms of perimenopause, the stage leading to menopause.
The drawback to this test is that it only tells you whether your FSH level is elevated, not where you are regarding menopause or perimenopause. One reading might not reveal very much since levels fluctuate during the day. And it won’t tell you whether you need treatment for any of your symptoms. Results can also be suspect if you’ve taken birth control pills within the prior six months.
After a bowel movement, you toss a test pad into the commode and wait according to the instructions in the kit. A change in pad color indicates blood in the stool.
Dr. Duggal indicates this test might be useful “if you are experiencing changes in your bowel patterns or if you have a history of polyps or colon cancer in your family.” A number of health organizations, including the American Cancer Society, recommend annual colorectal screening tests yearly after age 50.
While these tests are effective at revealing substantial amounts of blood, Dr. Gallahue says, they could miss small amounts. If you experiencing bleeding hemorrhoids of are taking supplements containing iron, you could get a false positive. A positive result merely means that you should see a physician for additional testing.
Blood pressure monitors:
You have a choice of a manual model similar to those in many medical offices or a battery-powered unit with a cuff for your wrist or upper arm.
These units are useful for individuals being treated for hypertension as well as those at risk for it. They provide a quick check on whether lifestyle or medication changes are causing positive results.
However, Dr. Duggal says if you’re either unusually thin or very overweight, readings might not be accurate. Some monitors just don’t function well. To get a consistent result, he suggests using it at the same time each day and to check it against your doctor’s unit during your next visit.
Vaginal infection test:
After insertion, you wait for the indicated amount of time and compare the color of the pH swap or the indicator strip on a wand to a color chart to find out if your pH suggests you might have a bacterial infection. If you do, you will need antibiotics. If, however, you have a yeast infection, you might be able to use an over-the-counter (OTC) product to treat it.
These kits are useful for women with vaginal itching, burning, unusual odor, or a change in the amount or color of vaginal discharge when they’re unaware of what’s causing the symptoms.
Don’t use this test if you’re pregnant or in menopause. Your pH varies during either circumstance. Women prone to recurrent year infections should instead visit a medical provider. If you have a fever and chills on top of the symptoms, you need to be treated quickly.
Urinary track infection (UTI):
To use this kit, you dip a test stick in your urine stream for at least 10 seconds. You then put it on a flat surface and wait two minutes for results to show. By comparing the color chart provided with the results, you can determine if the nitrite, leukocyte, and/or protein levels are normal. Different brands of UTI kits measure different elements.
Women who get frequent UTIs and who experience pain or burning while going to the bathroom or who notice an increase in urgency or frequency might be able to confirm an infection. They should then contact their physicians.
According to Dr. Gallahue, individuals who experience recurrent UTIs could have resistant bacterial and might need to visit a medical provider. She adds that “a negative test shouldn’t be seen as definitive.”
If you decide you need any of these kits, you should follow some precautions before using them. Make sure to store them in a cool, dry place to prevent the chemicals in them from degrading. A bathroom is too humid.
Before making your purchase, check the expiration date to make sure the contents aren’t past their prime. Also make sure to follow the instructions exactly. Varying even a little bit from the recommended procedures can mean an inaccurate result.