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Why do I need screening tests even if I don't feel sick?

Changes are always occurring in our bodies, especially as we age. Although most are harmless, a few have the potential for harm. Some changes are related to age itself, and some involve lifestyle—smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, lack of exercise, a poor diet and stress, for example. Screening tests search through seemingly healthy people, looking for those who might have harmful conditions that are still in an early stage, before they become serious problems. This means before you have symptoms serious enough to motivate you to see a doctor (when you are "asymptomatic," or before symptoms are said to become "clinical").

When a screening test reveals the possibility of a harmful condition, the usual procedure is to confirm the existence of the condition with follow-up tests and then to do something active about the condition—change lifestyle habits, take medication or have surgery. In theory, the value of screening tests is that, in the long run, there will be less illness and death from the condition in question than if the screening test had not been given. However, figuring this out is not as simple as it seems.

You need screening tests even if you don’t feel sick because most people do not feel poorly when they have some of the more serious health conditions. For example, unless it's extremely high, most people do not feel badly when they have high blood pressure. If they aren’t having routine screenings, such as a basic annual physical, their first indication of high blood pressure may be at a critical moment when they start having symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Another example is diabetes. According to the National Institutes of Health, one-third of all diabetics in the United States do not know they have the disease. Patients can go for years without “feeling” it, but that certainly doesn’t mean that their bodies, specifically eyes/nerves/kidneys/blood vessels, aren’t accruing damage. Long-term, uncontrolled diabetes can increase risk for heart attacks, strokes, blindness, and amputations.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.