No one can know for certain if they are going to become ill. Someone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day may never develop lung cancer, while a non-smoker could be diagnosed with the condition in their 20s.
However, there are factors that increase the likelihood of developing certain ailments. These tell-tale signifiers – such as age, lifestyle and occupation – can be used as prompts to help to direct people towards appropriate health services.
That is why the UK health service offers a serious of screening programmes and recommended tests, to help spot early signs of conditions, and treat them quicker and more effectively.
Health screening and testing
Screening can be used to test whole populations or specific groups for certain conditions or diseases. This allows medical professionals to catch potential problems before they become too serious.
If certain factors identify you as being in an ‘at-risk’ group, your GP may suggest that you take some tests, which work as a preventative measure by aiding early diagnosis.
Screening in pregnancy
It is now standard in the UK to screen all pregnant women for conditions that may affect both mother and child.
Expectant mothers will be tested for a dangerous rise in blood pressure known as pre-eclampsia. If pre-eclampsia is left untreated it can potentially leave mothers-to-be at risk of:
- kidney problems
- impaired liver function
The condition can also affect babies, resulting in:
- low birth weight
- pre-term birth
- still birth
Women who are pregnant will also face a gamut of blood tests that check for diseases such as diabetes and anaemia, as well as infections that may harm an unborn child, including hepatitis B and C, german measles (rubella) and HIV.
Children are routinely screened for various conditions when they are born, and then again after six weeks. The doctor will check that the baby is moving correctly and interacting with his/her parents, as well as for:
- physical abnormalities
- signs of blindness
- hip problems
- a hearing test
- a heel prick blood test for a range of conditions
Screening for cancer
Screening has become an invaluable tool in the fight against many types of cancer, as cancer caught early can often be treated effectively using a combination of radiotherapy and medication (chemotherapy).
Cancers that are found later, and have spread to other parts of the body can be much harder to treat, leading to significantly worse outcomes.
Cervical cancer screening
Cervical screening (also known as a smear test) looks for small abnormalities in the cells within the cervix. It is not a test for cancer, but rather looks for conditions that may make cancer likely in the future.
There is a high chance that such abnormalities will not lead to cancer; changed cells are common in women under 25, but less so in older women.
Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), and so women who are found to have abnormal cells are then tested for HPV. If the virus is present, further tests are recommended.
All women who are sexually active should get regular smear tests. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, these are provided free on the NHS if you are between the ages of 25 and 65, and in Scotland the age range is 20-60. If you are sexually active and haven’t received an invitation in the post to book a cervical smear, you should speak to your GP.
In addition to cervical screens, getting a HPV vaccination can be very effective in preventing cancer. Click the link below for more information.
Bowel cancer screening
Bowel cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the UK. Regular screening reduces the risk of death from the disease by around 16%.
Like with most cancers, early treatment greatly improves a person’s chance of living a long and healthy life.
Currently in the UK, all men and women aged 60 to 69 are invited to send stool samples through the post for analysis. If blood is found in the sample then a colonoscopy is arranged. This allows doctors to test whether the blood is a result of something benign, such as haemorrhoids or stomach ulcer, or something more serious.
If you are aged 60-69, you should speak to your GP about how to send in a sample.
Breast cancer screening
The chances of a women developing breast cancer increases after the menopause, with 80% of cases occurring in post-menopausal women. This is why routine screening is only offered to women after the age of 50.
If you are a woman over the age of 50, you should receive a letter inviting you to attend a screening. If you have not received one, you should speak to your GP.
Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA) screening
As you get older, the main blood vessel that supplies blood to your body (the aorta) can weaken. This can cause it to expand, creating what is known as an aortic aneurysm.
The condition is six times more likely in men than women, and usually affects men above the age of 65.
Early detection can prevent the aneurysm from bursting. Survival rates for people whose aneurysm has burst are just two in ten.
All men who turn 65 are offered AAA screening free on the NHS. Again, if you have not received a letter inviting you to get screened, you should speak to your GP.
Poor health can come when you least expect it. But by staying aware of the risks and getting regular health checks, you have the best chance of heading off many of the major health concerns before they become serious.