October marked Health Literacy Month, which focuses on better understanding and managing our individual health.
In recognition of Health Literacy Month, we’ve put together an overview of common lab tests with information from MedlinePlus and NIH.
What is a lab test?
When you see your health care provider, they may order a lab test. This test could be a small sample of your blood, urine, body fluids, or body tissues (like cells) to see if you have any health conditions or diseases.
In general, health care providers perform blood or urine lab tests to either help find out if you do or do not have a certain condition or disease—often before any symptoms appear.
Make sure to inform your provider and lab technician about medications you take and if you feel sick that day. Some tests, such as a blood glucose test, may require you to fast for 12 hours before the test to get more accurate results.
Common lab tests include:
- Complete blood count: Checks your overall health and is often given during the yearly checkup. Testing your red and white blood cell count can show if you have an infection (high white blood cell count) or anemia (low red blood cell count).
- Blood cholesterol test: Measures cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a wax-like substance found in our bodies. In high amounts, it can clog arteries and lead to health issues. This test can help you better understand your risk for heart disease, stroke, and other problems caused by narrowed or blocked arteries.
- Blood glucose test: Measures the amount of sugar in your blood. It can monitor or detect diabetes, a condition in which your blood sugar levels may be too high.
- TSH test: Measures the amount of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in your blood. TSH is produced by the pituitary gland, which releases hormones into your blood. Along with other tests, it can help detect thyroid problems like hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) or hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Pap test (or Pap smear): Detects or prevents cervical cancer by analyzing a small sample of cells from a woman’s cervix. The test may happen at a checkup with a primary care provider or with a gynecologist, a doctor who focuses on reproductive health.
Making sense of it all
You received your lab results. Now what?
Your health care provider should contact you to confirm your results look normal or to let you know if any tests require follow-up. They are trained to interpret data and results from these tests. If you don’t hear back from your medical office, make sure to follow up.
Here are a few common terms you might see:
- Normal or negative: This means nothing has changed, and there are no concerning substances found in your blood or urine test.
- Abnormal or positive: This means that the provider found a substance in your blood or urine that needs further analysis.
- Inconclusive or uncertain: This means that your medical provider needs more information (usually more tests) to find out what’s going on.
- False positive: Your test results show that you have a certain condition, but you don't really have it.
- False negative: Your test results show that you do not have a certain condition, but you really do have it.
Your provider will determine next steps once they review your lab results. Those might be a change in medication or diet or more tests to look into any potential problems.
If you don’t understand the wording or the numbers in your test results, ask your health care provider.
The more you understand, the better you can take care of yourself and your family.