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An annual physical and a blood test go hand in hand. Blood tests can help a doctor to diagnose multiple medical problems and diseases, sometimes before a patient notices any of the tell-tale symptoms. Conditions such as cancer, liver disorders, diabetes, thyroid problems, anemia, blood cancer, heart disease, stroke, and blood clotting issues can be determined by analyzing blood test results.
Considering the results from a blood test in combination with a patient’s history, symptoms, blood pressure readings, pulse, temperature, and other tests and procedures can help a doctor to determine the cause of his or her discomfort. Usually conducted by drawing blood from a vein in the arm, certain blood tests (e.g., blood glucose) can be conducted through a finger prick test.
When Will You Need a Blood Test?
Ever had a physical? If not, what are you waiting for? Seriously. You should have one every year to make sure your body is in tip-top condition. If you have had a physical, then you know to expect a blood test a few days prior to seeing the doctor.
These routine blood tests help the doctor to measure things such as your cholesterol, thyroid function and vitamin levels. They’re the key to determining and improving your overall health. The earlier you know that something is out of whack, the better able you’ll be to take action to prevent a more serious illness.
Your physical isn’t the only time you’ll need a blood test. Your doctor may also order a blood test if you’re pregnant or trying to have a baby, have a family history of illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, or are experiencing various unexplained symptoms. A blood test is your first step in ruling out more severe illnesses before having to undergo more serious tests or procedures.
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What are the Different Types of Blood Tests?
As we mentioned earlier, there are a slew of blood tests that can help determine how your body is working. The most common include:
- Complete blood count (CBC): The most popular type of blood test, a CBC test is routinely ordered by a doctor as part of your annual physical. In addition to testing for infections, blood cancer, anemia, clotting problems, diabetes (e.g., glucose levels), kidney, thyroid, and liver function, a CBC test can also assess other conditions, including how well your immune system is functioning. CBC tests monitor a person’s red and white blood cells, platelets, and iron.
- Blood chemistry: Also known as your basic metabolic panel, this group of tests measures the chemicals in your blood. They are useful at telling doctors more about the muscles, bones, kidneys, liver, and other organs. They also test for blood glucose, minerals such as calcium, and your electrolyte levels. Unlike a CBC test, blood chemistry tests are often conducted on the plasma, not the whole blood. These blood tests may require you to fast beforehand.
- Blood clotting: Certain people suffer from disorders that affect their blood’s ability to clot. The result: a risk of bleeding or clot development in blood vessels. Those who take medications to lower the risk of blood clotting (e.g., Warfarin and Heparin) should have a blood clotting test.
- Blood enzyme: Enzymes are chemical proteins that help regulate certain reactions (e.g., blood clotting) throughout the body. Enzymes are also responsible for your body’s ability to break down food. Enzymes are released into the blood as a result of tissue damage (e.g., after a heart attack). Blood enzyme tests measure these levels to check for certain diseases like cancer. Blood enzyme tests are commonly conducted to test for a heart attack. Regularly tested enzymes include: CPK isoenzymes (these exist in muscles of the heart, brain, and skeleton) and liver enzymes. Fasting is not usually required for this type of test. (See also the National Institutes of Health’s post on albumin blood tests.)
- Heart disease risk: Lipoproteins, a.k.a. lipids, are made of protein and fat and they’re responsible for carrying cholesterol through the bloodstream. A blood test of lipoproteins can determine a person’s levels of LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides, all of which are markers of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Those who have a strong family history of coronary artery disease should have a blood test to assess their heart disease risk.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A BLOOD TEST
Never had a blood test before? Lucky you. First of all, rest easy: Having a blood test is a simple process. Here’s what to expect:
- Your doctor will request a specific test or multiple tests. Next, you’ll arrive at the lab with your paperwork in hand. Sometimes, your doctor will file it electronically, which means you arrive with nothing but yourself.
- Some tests require that you fast for a certain number of hours (usually 8 to 12) prior to having your blood taken. If that’s the case, you’ll have to remember not to eat before your test.
- The lab technician will sit you down and go over your paperwork to ensure that he is testing you for the right things.
- He’ll tie a piece of rubber tubing near your bicep to help engorge a vein in the crook of your elbow. You’ll be asked to make a fist and possibly pump your hand open and shut to help with this process.
- Next comes the needle. Don’t worry. It’s small and hurts less if you don’t look at it – trust us! The technician will then remove the rubber tubing, ask you to relax your fist and will collect blood in a number of pre-labeled vials.
- Once that’s finished, you’ll be the lucky recipient of a hospital-grade Band-Aid and sent on your way.
- Your blood is analyzed. This is done either in whole form (i.e. to count blood cells) or separated to study the blood cells separately from the fluid (a.k.a. plasma or serum) that they live in.
- Results are sent to your doctor.
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