Things you need to know before you get a blood test

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You might look and feel completely healthy, but it's not always totally obvious when there's something wrong with your body until you go to the doctor and get a blood test. Blood tests don't just diagnose disease; they can catch a whole host of potential health problems while they're still in their early stages and allow you to manage them through early intervention. Blood tests are a quick and easy procedure, and can help monitor blood sugar, heart disease risk factors, hormone balance, mineral balance, liver and kidney function and levels of red and white blood cells, among many other things. In short, a blood test is the single most important test you can get to prevent, diagnose and manage a wide variety of diseases and conditions, and it's vital to have your blood tested annually.

Sadly, not everyone who should get an annual blood test actually does, and for some folks, there's still some confusion about the process. Make sure that you visit your doctor annually for a full physical (complete with a comprehensive blood test), and read on for everything you need to know before having blood drawn.

There's no standard blood test

Not all blood tests are the same. During a standard annual physical, for example, doctors will order what's called a metabolic panel, which screens for, among other things, basic kidney and liver function, blood glucose levels, and cholesterol and electrolyte levels. Other blood tests will be specific to the individual based on their needs.


Some tests require you to fast

It's very important to fast before a blood test if you're required to. Not all tests require fasting beforehand, but cholesterol and glucose tests are among the ones that do. If your blood test requires you to fast, you can't eat or drink anything for at least eight hours ahead of time, so it is best to get the test taken first thing in the morning.


If you fast, you can drink water and take medications beforehand

Even though you can't drink coffee while fasting, you can - and in fact, you should - take medications and drink water. Being well-hydrated will also make it easier for the phlebotomist (the person who draws the blood) to find a good vein. And if your doctor has ordered a urine test as well, you'll definitely want to make sure you drink plenty of water beforehand.


If you fast, bring along something to eat afterwards

You're free to eat as soon as you get your blood drawn, and if you haven't eaten anything since last night's dinner, you're going to want to in order to get your blood sugar back to normal levels. You might also want to drink some juice afterwards, as well.


If you're not fasting, make sure you eat breakfast

Eating a little something before the test (if you're not required to fast) will help keep your blood sugar up, which will help with any wooziness (just one of the many reasons why you should never skip breakfast). But if the sight of blood makes you nauseous, well, you might not want to eat a big breakfast.


Call your insurance provider if you're unsure about coverage

If your annual physical is covered by insurance, the metabolic panel ordered by your physician during the physical should be covered, too. But certain follow-up tests may not be covered, so if you're concerned, call your insurance provider and speak with them before having the test done.


It won't take very long

The actual process of getting blood drawn shouldn't take more than a few minutes: The phlebotomist puts on gloves, applies a tourniquet to your arm, finds a vein, swabs the spot with an alcohol pad, asks you to make a fist, and inserts the needle. A vial or two is filled up, the needle is removed, a bandage is applied, and that's it.


It might be difficult to find a vein

Some people have more pronounced veins in their arms than others, and it may take a couple needle sticks before a good vein is found. But the phlebotomist is skilled at finding even "shy veins," (as they're called), so it shouldn't be too difficult.


If you have a phobia of blood or needles, let them know

If you pass out at the sight of blood or start screaming every time a needle comes near you, it's wise to let your phlebotomist know this in advance. They have a job to do and would prefer not to have any surprises.


Let them know if you're on blood thinners

If you take blood thinners like heparin or warfarin, it might be more difficult to stop the bleeding at the puncture site after blood is drawn. Let the phlebotomist know, so they can pay extra attention to making sure that the bleeding has stopped.


Relax and let your mind wander

The actual puncture feels like a sharp pinch, and even though it is slightly painful, it's over in half a second. Tensing up and focusing all your energy on the incoming needle can make the puncture itself seem even more painful than it actually is; if you relax and let your mind wander to, say, lying in a hammock on a secluded beach, it'll be a much easier experience.


There may be some bruising

If there's a little bit of bruising around the puncture site, it's completely normal; it should go away within a few days. Applying a lot of pressure right after the needle is removed will help lower the odds of a bruise developing.


Remove the bandage after an hour

Because it's such a small pinprick, any bleeding should stop within a minute or so. You can leave the bandage on for up to a day, but you probably won't need it for more than an hour.


Make sure the lab is in-network

If your insurance only covers lab work done at, say, Quest Diagnostics, but your doctor usually sends their samples to a different lab, you can end up footing the bill. Before getting your test done, double-check which labs will be covered by your insurance and be sure to notify your doctor; it's just one question you should be asking your doctor but probably aren't.

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