From cancer to cholesterol to cannabis-use, the range of self-screening kits is vast. But are they accurate, or worthwhile?
A new home test to enable pregnant women to detect the potentially fatal condition pre-eclampsia is being developed. It will join the many self-test kits already on sale in pharmacists, supermarkets and online. But should you fill your basket with kits to test for everything from bowel cancer to meningitis? Get a gizmo to detect blood in your poo? Or dip a stick in your teenager’s wee to check they’re not stoned?
Here’s a sample of readily available tests, which I’ve tested so you don’t have to. All the kits I checked cost under £20, many under £10. It pays to shop around because there are often several versions of the same basic test. Some are highly accurate, easy to use and clearly useful, such as pregnancy tests. Others can be used to monitor progress once you’ve had a diagnosis and assessment from a health professional, such as cholesterol-testing strips or blood glucose tests. And others just seem pointless, such as the bit of plastic used to show a meningitis rash.
Bowel home-test kit, £12.25
What is it? A one-off test to detect blood in the stool that is not visible to the naked eye.
Why test? One in 20 people in the UK get bowel cancer and it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths. Screening reduces the risk of dying from the disease by 16%.
Limitations Not all cancers bleed. Any blood detected may be due to piles/aspirin/ulcers/non-cancerous growths. Could offer false reassurance if negative. Any bleeding needs urgent medical attention and if bowel cancer runs in the family, referral for proper screening and genetic counselling is definitely preferable.
The expert view A spokesperson for the NHS Bowel Screening Programme says: “A home testing kit known as a faecal occult blood test is sent to those aged 60-69 (up to 74 in some areas), and repeated every two years. An additional test, bowel scope screening, to detect early bowel polyps and cancers before symptoms develop, is currently being piloted and within three years should be offered to everyone as a one-off at the age of 55.”
Verdict No receptacle, had to rush round house looking for one. Negative result. Quite reassuring as I’m not yet in the age range for national screening.
Meningitis Arc Early Alert Pack, £10.20
What is it? A curved piece of clear plastic that you lay over a rash to see if it fades on pressure. The rash of advanced meningitis/septicaemia (blood poisoning) doesn’t. Signs and symptoms of meningitis are also printed on the plastic, with a picture of a typical rash.
Why test? Meningitis (inflammation of the protective covering around the brain and spinal cord) and septicaemia (the blood poisoning form of the disease) can kill very rapidly. Symptoms may not differ from any other less serious illness in the early stages.
Limitations The rash may appear at a late stage or not at all. Traditional advice is to press the base of a glass on to the rash; the plastic is no better.
The expert view The Meningitis Research Foundation did not want to comment on this or any other product, but said if you suspect meningitis: “You shouldn’t wait for the rash but should trust your own instincts and push for medical help.”
Verdict I pressed this over a non-meningitis rash and it did fade. But I wouldn’t want to rely on it if my child were very ill.
First Sign 7-in-1 drug-testing kit, £5.06
What is it? A stick you dip in urine, which turns positive if there are traces of cocaine, speed, ecstasy, cannabis, heroin, benzos (sleeping pills/tranquillisers) and methadone.
Why test? Last year, one in 12 people aged 16-59 took illicit drugs; most commonly cannabis, followed by cocaine and ecstasy. Among those aged 16-24, the figure was about one in six, a significant fall from 2011 when it was nearer to one in five. So, contrary to public perception, the majority of young adults don’t do drugs. But parents, employers and probation officers do worry about drug use and this kit is cheap, reliable and easy to use.
Limitations May test positive if taking codeine-based painkillers. A positive test doesn’t indicate when the drug was used: most stay in the body for just a few days, but cannabis can be detected for up to 30 days after use.
The expert view Rebecca Pritchard, director of adult services at Compass (services to tackle problem drug use), says: “I am not sure benzo testing at home is useful, as people would know if they had taken them and what they really need is support and specialist help to detox and manage that psychological transition. Home testing is likely to risk further isolation.”
Verdict Easy to use. Negative test. But I knew that.
Other available kits
Biotech Biocard Celiac Test, £20.42
Checks for gluten-intolerance on a finger-prick blood test. Accurate test, but diagnosis means a lifelong gluten-free diet, so expert advice is essential. If you have already excluded gluten (in wheat) from your diet, you may test negative.
Suresign Total Cholesterol Test, £4.59
Tests the range that your total cholesterol level lies in on a finger-prick blood test. Doesn’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” cholesterol. For an accurate assessment of your risk of heart disease/stroke, you need to check blood pressure, take into account whether you’re diabetic or a smoker and factor in any family history.
SelfCheck Urine Infection Test Kit, £9.99 for two tests
Urine stick that shows evidence of urinary tract infection. An overpriced version of Multistix GP used by doctors (£11.18 for 25 strips). Useful if you think you have bladder irritation, for example after sex, with no infection. If positive, you’ll need to see a GP for antibiotics and to test for chlamydia.
Free chlamydia test (www.chlamydiascreening.nhs.uk)
This chlamydia self-test kit (vaginal swab or urine) is sent to you in the post. You send it back and will then receive results and treatment options by text or post. Free in many areas for those aged 16 to 24.
So now my bathroom is full of kits, do I get up an hour earlier to test my bodily emissions? No. If I saw blood in my wee or poo, I would go to a doctor. If I were unwell, losing weight or noticed a lump, ditto. If I had a strong family history of a potentially dangerous and treatable condition such as breast or bowel cancer, I would ask to be referred for screening. Otherwise, I’d be content to wake up as late as possible and engage in the only preventive ritual that I am convinced works: brushing my teeth.