Screening programmes are designed to identify health problems at an early stage so that they can be treated swiftly, before they become more serious. The NHS offer a number of free screening programmes, beginning before we are even born.
Screenings during pregnancy
If you are pregnant, you will usually be offered a blood test to screen for hepatitis B, HIV and syphilis at your booking appointment with the midwife. Ideally, this test is done before you’re 10 weeks pregnant so that any infection can be treated quickly, reducing the likelihood of it passing to your baby.
You will also be offered screening for thalassaemia and sometimes, sickle cell disease, before 10 weeks too. These are inherited blood diseases and it’s important to establish whether you’re a carrier.
During your pregnancy, you will also be offered screenings for your unborn baby.
- Between 8 and 14 weeks of pregnancy: a ‘dating scan’. This ultrasound checks your baby’s development and confirms your due date and if you’re expecting more than one baby.
- Between 10 and 14 weeks: screening for Down’s syndrome, Patau’s syndrome and Edwards’ syndrome. This combines a blood test with an ultrasound scan and can be done alongside your dating scan.
- Between 18 and 21 weeks: The ‘mid-pregnancy anomaly scan’, an ultrasound to check for physical abnormalities.
Screenings for new-borns
New-born babies are given a physical examination and also:
- A hearing test before 3 months of age.
- A blood spot ’heel prick’ test to check for sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis, congenital hypothyroidism and several inherited metabolic diseases, including phenylketonuria (PKU).
Screening for teens and adults
Diabetics aged 12 and over: the annual diabetic eye test checks for early signs of diabetic retinopathy (damage to blood vessels in the retina).
Women aged between 25 and 64: Cervical screening (a ‘smear test’) is offered to check the health of cells in the cervix. Changes in these cells can often be benevolent but may also be an early sign of cervical cancer. Women are screened every three years from 26 to 49 and every five years from the ages of 50 to 64. This quick test is usually done at your GP surgery by a doctor or nurse, who will gently remove some cells from the surface of your cervix.
Over 40s: You may be invited for a general health check every five years.
Women aged 50 to 70: Breast screening, via an X-ray called a mammogram, can detect early signs of breast cancer. Women over 70 can self-refer.
Over 55s: In some parts of England, bowel scope screening to detect bowel cancer is offered. The large bowel is examined via a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera.
Aged 60 to 74: Every two years, you will be sent a home testing kit called the faecal occult blood (FOB) test, which can detect blood in your stool. The presence of blood indicates further testing is required.
Men at age 65: Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening is offered to detect dangerous swelling in the aorta. Men over 65 can self-refer.
Many private health companies advertise a range of additional screening tests, which you will have to pay for unless they form part of an introductory offer or membership scheme. Some of the tests offered are not recommended by the UK National Screening Committee, as it isn’t clear that their benefits outweigh the harm they may cause.
If you want to know more about private screening, the UK NSC has produced a downloadable leaflet on private screening which you can access here: www.gov.uk/government/publications/leaflet-thinking-of-having-a-private-screening-test/private-screening-important-facts.
Screening Could Save Your Life
Although these screenings are offered to everyone eligible, they’re not compulsory. It’s your choice whether to attend or make a screening appointment or use a home testing kit. The majority of screenings aren’t invasive or uncomfortable. But you may find that the screenings, the wait for results and the results themselves cause anxiety. Sometimes results can give rise to difficult decisions, especially where pregnancy screenings are concerned.
Also, some of these screenings don’t give instant, definite answers; there may be a small risk of false negatives and positives, and more tests may be required.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that screening could save your life (or that of a loved one). Screenings can alert you and your doctor to early signs of disease. Diagnosing and treating conditions swiftly is the best way to reduce their impact on your life and prevent them from becoming more severe.
It’s just an hour of your life or less – and that hour could give you many extra years of life.
When you’re invited for screening, you will receive an information leaflet about the test. There is usually a number to ring if you have any questions or worries, and you can also discuss your concerns with your GP.
If you would like to understand more about screenings and the pros and cons of choosing to have them, the NHS recommends a leaflet from Sense about Science, entitled Making Sense of Screening, which can be viewed here: senseaboutscience.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Makingsenseofscreening.pdf.