Your blood can reveal a lot about your health – sometimes picking up health issues when you haven’t experienced any symptoms.
A Mediclinic doctor recommends the most important blood tests for women. By now, you probably know the importance of going for your regular pap smear and breast check-up. But did you know that regular blood tests should also form part of your screening regimen? Dr Koena Olivia Sebopa-Masenya is a GP at Mediclinic Lephalale with a special interest in women’s health. She shares the blood tests every woman should know about.
1. Full Blood Count
“This tests levels of different cells in your blood – white blood cells, linked to your immune system, red blood cells, which transport oxygen, platelet, which are linked to clotting and haemoglobin – the protein in your red blood cells that carries oxygen to your organs and carries carbon dioxide away from your organs,” explains Dr Sebopa-Masenya.
What it tells you: Abnormal values can help you pick up nutrient deficiencies, such as iron deficiency, vitamin B12, clotting problems, infections and signs of blood cancers – that’s why it’s one of the standard blood tests that are performed when you go into hospital, says Dr Sebopa-Masenya.
When to go: If you feel symptoms such as extreme fatigue, weakness or your periods are longer and there are blood clots in your menstrual blood, Dr Sebopa-Masenya recommends making an appointment with your GP, who may recommend a complete blood count test.
2. Glucose, Electrolytes and Kidney Function Blood Tests
High glucose levels can show up in your blood, as well as in a urine test. But, says Dr Sebopa-Masenya, glucose in your urine could simply be a sign that you drank a sugary drink recently, while the blood glucose test will come up as normal. “Renal glycosuria is a condition in which too much of the simple sugar is removed through urine; it happens even though there are normal or low levels of sugar in the blood,” she explains. The blood glucose test is a simple finger prick that your doctor can perform in their rooms. The kidney function test – another one of the standard-issue blood tests that gets performed in hospital – requires you to have blood drawn to look at levels of electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium.
What it tells you: High blood glucose levels may indicate diabetes. “Diabetes is very serious and affects the whole body,” says Dr Sebopa-Masenya. “It affects your eyes (you can go blind), your kidneys, you can get sores in your mouth, and you can end up losing your legs.” Abnormal results on your kidney function blood tests could indicate that your kidneys are not working properly, putting you at risk of kidney failure. Low sodium levels can result in your feeling weak, confused and even experiencing seizures, while low potassium levels can cause persistent vomiting.
When to go: “You should have a blood glucose test every time you go to the doctor for your regular check-up,” says Dr Sebopa-Masenya. But she says you should especially be on the lookout for signs such as feeling thirsty all the time, needing to urinate frequently, especially at night, and never feeling full even though you’re eating well. “Some people have diabetes and don’t have symptoms, while others have symptoms but don’t recognise them, so they delay getting help,” she cautions. If you have difficulty passing urine or you only pass a little bit of urine or if you have persistent diarrhoea or vomiting, these are also signs you need to go for blood tests – see your doc ASAP.
3. Liver Function Test
“Your liver produces enzymes that help with metabolism,” explains Dr Sebopa-Masenya. It’s the levels of these enzymes that the blood tests will be looking for.
What it tells you: Abnormal results may indicate cirrhosis of the liver, most common in those who drink a lot of alcohol, hepatitis, which may be caused by infection, damaged liver, liver cancer or heart conditions, says Dr Sebopa-Masenya. It can also indicate other conditions, like problems with your gallbladder or bile duct, malnutrition and zinc deficiency.
When to go: Jaundice is a major sign of liver damage. If your eyes or skin look yellow or if you have dark yellow urine or faeces, see a doctor right away, says Dr Sebopa-Masenya.
4. Lipid Profile Blood Tests
This is mainly to check your cholesterol. High cholesterol can cause a build-up of fat around your heart, limiting its ability to expand and contract, says Dr Sebopa-Masenya. The initial screening test can happen with a finger prick test in your doctor’s rooms. “This will tell you whether your cholesterol is high – if that’s the case, you’ll need to go for more blood tests to evaluate which cholesterol level is high,” she says. “LDL is ‘bad’ cholesterol which creates harmful plaque. HDL is ‘good’ cholesterol, which helps your liver break down fat into waste.”
What it tells you: High cholesterol puts you at risk of heart disease and stroke if left untreated.
When to go: You should have a screening test at least once a year as part of your regular check-up.
5. Thyroid Profile
“The thyroid is a tiny gland in the middle of your neck, and it is essential for life,” says Dr Sebopa Masenya. “It controls bodily functions, mood, energy levels and metabolism.” Abnormal thyroid function can fall into hypothyroidism – where your thyroid is under producing or hyperthyroidism, where it is over producing, she explains. In the case of the latter, you may actually notice a visible mass protruding from the middle of your neck, especially when you swallow. In some cases, your eyes will also start to bulge from their sockets.
What it tells you: An abnormal thyroid can cause hormone imbalances that may result in a number of health issues. It can cause your period to become very heavy, very light or disappear entirely and even cause infertility. If thyroid toxicity develops, it can be fatal.
When to go: When you’re pregnant, thyroid tests will be one of the standard blood tests your doctor will recommend. If you’re not pregnant, see a doctor if you experience sudden bodily changes, says Dr Sebopa-Masenya – these could be sudden, unexplained weight loss or gain, feeling either very hot or very cold, drinking a lot more water than usual or feeling very fatigued.
Other Helpful Blood Tests For Women
In addition to these five blood tests, Dr Sebopa-Masenya also recommends the following:
- CRP: This can indicate a bacterial or viral infection, such as Covid-19.
- STI: Sexually active women should test for HIV, gonorrhoea, syphilis, herpes, chlamydia and hepatitis B. The earlier these are picked up, the less chance there is for serious complications to develop and for the woman to pass them on to a partner unknowingly.
- Cardiac markers: If you are experiencing persistent chest pain, see a doctor immediately. These blood tests could indicate that you are at risk of having a heart attack. “You should never ignore chest pain,” warns Dr Sebopa-Masenya. “Just 30 minutes can make a difference.”
- Coagulation profile: These blood tests indicate how well your blood clots and how long it takes to clot, which in turn, can reveal underlying conditions. Women who bruise easily should especially go for this test, says Dr Sebopa-Masenya.
The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.