For years I have recommended that women use reputable home medical tests as a way of taking charge of their health. But with so many home medical tests on the market now, the question is not canyou test for a specific condition, but should you?
Information is power. And I still believe that, in some instances, home medical tests can give you the information and confidence you need to take control of your health. Yet, I don’t recommend every home medical test out there. For one thing, more and more tests are providing complex health information. In addition, there is always the risk of misinterpreting your results. Plus, there are always those who tend to put too much emphasis on test results and overlook the bigger picture.
3 Types of Home Medical Tests
There are many home health tests on the market today, and they fall into primarily 3 main categories:
- Diagnostic tests. These tests tell you whether you have a certain disease or condition, including tests for pregnancy, urinary tract infections, and even HIV.
- Hormone tests. These give you a snapshot of your hormone levels at a given time. Common hormone tests include estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol levels and thyroid hormone levels.
- Baseline or measurement tests. These tests measure other key indicators of wellness. You can test for vitamin deficiencies, blood sugar, cholesterol, and much more.
Most of these tests require a drop of blood, swab of saliva, or urine or stool sample.
Finger-prick tests are standard for people with diabetes and others who want to measure their blood sugar levels. Urine tests are most commonly associated with at-home pregnancy tests, which look for the assay human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone the body begins to produce once an embryo has attached to the uterine wall. They have been used since the 1970s as an accurate method of determining whether you are pregnant. Stool tests can be used to assess your gut microbiome at home. Some home medical tests give instant results; others take days or weeks after being sent to a lab.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Do-It-Yourself Medical Tests
There are some obvious benefits to using at-home medical tests. For one thing, they are convenient and discreet. Typically, they are inexpensive (though some can be pricey).
However, not all at-home medical tests are created equal. Their quality and value can vary greatly.
The home medical tests you see on the pharmacy shelf and most of those you can find online have been approved by the FDA. This means the agency has reviewed test data from the manufacturers to make sure that the kits are easy to use and that people can get accurate results if they follow the directions. However, this does not necessarily make every test you see in the drugstore or online a good choice.
Home medical tests are actually considered medical devices. This categorization allows them to get to market faster than drugs. The FDA does not guarantee that the readings will always be correct. This is why you need to do your own research. The test results you receive can be wrong. False positive results can be alarming for many who have been taught to give their power away to a test that measures one point in time though the body is always changing. And even if the results are correct, tests can still give false reassurance or cause false concern.
5 At-Home Medical Tests I Recommend
There are certain at-home medical tests that I think can be of value to many people. They include the following:
- Single biomarker diagnostic tests. Tests that detect a single biomarker in the body can be good for certain people and under certain circumstances. They are highly accurate—you either have the biomarker or you don’t—and generally easy for most people to use. Every woman who thinks she’s pregnant can pee on a stick. There is low risk of false positive (although there is a slight risk of false negative). HIV tests work the same way. This can be blood that you send to a lab after taking your own sample or a saliva test that gives results in about 20 minutes. Having the information can help you figure out the next step in treatment or medical care. If you are a high-risk individual (sexually active adults not in a long-term, monogamous relationship) and you don’t want to be tested in a doctor’s office, this test might be right for you. As an aside: about 25 percent of those with HIV are 55 and older! And older people are more likely to be diagnosed when the disease is more advanced. But let me also take a moment to remind you that we now know that many people live long and healthy lives with a positive HIV test. It doesn’t mean it will progress to full-blown AIDS.
- Blood glucose tests. These tests help you maintain your health if you have diabetes or prediabetes by allowing you to monitor your blood sugar levels. Blood glucose tests give instant results and can be useful for your health care provider to know if your medications need to be adjusted. Blood glucose tests can also be diagnostic. An estimated 40 percent of adults are unaware that they have type 2 diabetes. If you have symptoms, including obesity, high blood pressure, excessive thirst or hunger, frequent urination, family history, a blood glucose test may give you a better picture. And being proactive may save you trouble down the road. There are a number of blood glucose meters and test strips on the market.
- Vitamin D deficiency test. Optimal vitamin D is necessary for the health of every cell in your body and influences over 2,000 genes.Unfortunately,vitamin D deficiency is epidemicand can result in many diseases, includingdiabetes, hypertension, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancers of the breast, prostate, and colon. Testing is easy. You just prick your finger and send the blood sample to a lab. Results are clear and actionable—you take supplemental vitamin D if your levels are too low. Most people feel better with vitamin D levels between 40–60 ng/ml. I like the Grassroots Health vitamin D test because of all the information they provide to help you. Plus, you can test omega-3s as well.
- Vaginal pH test. This is ascreening test used to measure vaginal pH. It can help you determine if you have a yeast infection.Since you can buy over-the-counter antifungal drugs to treat the problem, this can be a good test for some women. But see a doctor if symptoms don’t improve or if they reoccur.Your symptomscould indicate a different infection—one that requires an exam and other lab tests.
- Microbiome test. 80 percent of your immune system is in your microbiome. Microbiome tests tell you what beneficial organisms you have as well as any pathogens that may be contributing to digestive symptoms or conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. These tests can help you monitor your overall gut health over time.
Which Tests Should You Avoid?
Many health conditions are not straightforward, so I don’t recommend home testing for the following:
- Allergies. Usually these will show that you are allergic or sensitive to whatever you are currently exposed to. It’s better to have a professional allergist do testing.
- Colon cancer. Many people avoid colonoscopies because of the discomfort and the risk of infection or intestinal perforation. However, home stool test kits may not provide accurate results. If you use one, do it 3 times (with 3 different bowel movements). This will improve results. It’s better to ask your health care provider for a fecal occult blood test if you are at risk or having symptoms.
- Thyroid disease. Thyroid disease is complex. If you do a home test, use the DUTCH test. But be sure to see your provider, who can accurately interpret your levels and determine what treatment you may need.
- Cholesterol . Most kits only test for total cholesterol, but total cholesterol tests don’t provide accurate information about your cardiovascular risk. Nor do they tell you much about the impact of diet or exercise on your cholesterol. You really need a full lipid panel to understand the picture. If you do test at home, get a test kit that measures LDL, HDL, vLDL, triglycerides, as well as total cholesterol and the ratio of LDL and HDL. If you’re being treated with a cholesterol-lowering drug, it may make sense to check your total cholesterol levels at home every 6 to 12 months to see whether the drugs are helping. If your level seems high, let your doctor know. Don’t adjust your medications on your own.
- Genetic tests . I never recommend these tests unless you are working with a good genetic counselor, because they are not diagnostic, they don’t provide actionable information, and they can easily be misleading. Remember, your genes are not necessarily your destiny. Genes cause less than 10 percent of all diseases! And you can change how your genes express with your beliefs.
- Hormone testing. I used to recommend women test their hormones to get a baseline, then retest when having symptoms or to monitor hormone replacement therapy. However, hormone tests only measure one single point in time. So, whether you use blood, saliva, or urine, you are really not getting the entire picture, because hormones fluctuate wildly throughout the day. Your results also depend upon diet, your activity level, the time of day, and your nutritional status. Now I still think in certain cases this can be a good thing, but it needs to be done by a lab that has a lot of experience. I prefer the DUTCH test (dried urine test for comprehensive hormones) by Precision Analytical, Inc. You collect samples throughout a 24-hour period, which is much more accurate than a blood test and can give you a full hormonal picture.
Why I Don’t Recommend COVID-19 Tests
Overall, I do not recommend that healthy people get tested for active COVID-19 infection. The tests are intended to be used on patients who meet the CDC clinical criteria for COVID-19, such as a fever, cough, and shortness of breath. That said, it is always best to nip any type of infection in the bud. So, if you have early or mild symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and have been exposed to someone who has the disease, it’s best to be tested in a professional setting and to follow up with your health care provider.
Here are some of the reasons I do not suggest you take a COVID-19 test if you are healthy:
- Accuracy. The current COVID-19 tests for active infection are called reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests. RT-PCR tests detect genetic material related to a specific virus. However, they are not always accurate. The COVID-19 RT-PCR test may not be able to distinguish among COVID-19 infection and infections from other coronaviruses, adenoviruses, and rhinoviruses that cause the common cold and cold-like symptoms; bacteria and other viruses that cause upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, and even tuberculosis; and some spirochetes such as those often associated with Lyme disease and co-infections. There can be a high rate of false positives, including people with past infections testing positive with a low, noninfectious viral load. (According to Dr. Birx and the CDC, at the time this blog was written, 50 percent of the positive tests were false positives.)
- Contact tracing. In the United States, all positive COVID-19 tests, regardless of accuracy, are required to be reported to the appropriate public health authorities for contact tracing purposes. How strenuous the contact tracing is in your area is determined by state and local authorities. It may mean government officials calling you or showing up at your door and asking for the names of everyone you have been within 6 feet of. Those people will then be traced and contacted and potentially required to take a test, even if they are healthy, in order to go back to their daily life. In addition, once you take a COVID-19 test, the government owns your health information.
- FDA approval. The COVID-19 tests on the market today—including the ones being used in health care settings—are not FDA-approved. These tests were quickly passed for temporary use under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) mechanism, which means they are for emergency use only during a specific time frame and have not undergone the same scrutiny as FDA-approved tests.
- Proper specimen. While at-home COVID-19 tests only require you to stick a nasal swab into your lower to mid-nasal passage and may be easier to use and less painful than a nasopharyngeal test (like the one you get from your health care provider), comparisons also show them to be less accurate. Part of the reason is that people are less likely to collect their specimen properly and are more likely to mishandle the specimen. And remember, the same data collection and contact tracing laws apply to at-home tests.
I also do not recommend that anyone take a COVID-19 antibody test to see if you’ve had a past infection. These tests look for the antibodies made by B cells. Antibodies can take several days or even weeks to develop after you have had an infection. They can stay in your blood for up to several weeks after recovery. But if you test too soon or too late (such as months after an infection), you may not have antibodies. And some people may never even produce antibodies because their infection was quelled by what are known as T cells. Recent studies have shown that both noninfected and infected people harbor T cells that target the SARS-CoV-2. This is most likely due to previously having had other coronaviruses. Strong T-cell responses are a good indicator of a strong immune system and potential long-term protective immunity.
How to Use Your Test Results
If you decide to use any at-home medical tests, here are some basic rules to follow:
- Look for trends. Don’t take one test result or one data set as the final answer.
- Consult your health care provider. Self-diagnosis carries risks. When taking any test, you need to take the results in context and be sure to understand them.
- Don’t self-treat. Self-treating based on an at-home test result may not be the best thing to do until you are clear about what exactly you are trying to achieve. Again, it’s best to consult a knowledgeable health care provider. I recommend someone trained in functional medicine, which acknowledges the role of food, emotions, and more.
- Put faith in your body. Remember, your body is always moving toward health. It’s always best to trust your body and not a test!