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Health Tests, Demystified

While you may never look forward to a mammogram or a colonoscopy, these tips and strategies can get you through them without all the worry. 

By Lambeth Hochwald
Medical chart with stethoscope Kang Kim

The Test: Stress

Recommended: If you’re experiencing chest discomfort or shortness of breath, both of which are possible symptoms of heart disease.

Before: This exam measures how your heart handles exertion. For 12 hours prior, avoid caffeine and cigarettes. You may also need to fast and stop taking certain medications, says Jack Flyer, a cardiologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “Beta-blockers, for example, slow the heart rate,” he says. Blockages in the arteries to the heart can be better detected if the heart rate is allowed to go higher. Pack sneakers to wear for the test.

During: Electrodes are placed across your chest and a blood-pressure cuff is put on your arm. You’ll walk on a treadmill while your doctor watches the electrical activity (EKG) of your heart. You’ll start out slow, but the treadmill will get faster and steeper. “The doctor will see how long you can exercise, whether you get symptoms of a heart problem, such as discomfort, and whether your EKG changes,” says Steven L. Brown, a cardiologist in Midland, Texas, and the author of Navigating the Medical Maze (Brazos Press, $15, The procedure may include an echocardiogram, in which a doctor uses an ultrasound to take pictures of your heart at rest and after exercise. The results are available immediately.

After: Stress tests don’t require sedation, so you should be able to drive home afterward.

The Test: Skin Cancer Screening

Recommended: Every year.

Before: Remove all nail polish before going to the dermatologist’s office to make it easier to check for melanomas under your nail beds.

During: You’ll change into a gown and your doctor will examine your body from your scalp down to the skin between your toes. “If anything suspicious is found, it will generally be removed by numbing with lidocaine, using excision, and stitching it up,” says Louis Vogel, a dermatologist in New York City. Or your doctor could also use a tool to burn off the growth or mark.

After: If you have a mole removed, use an antibiotic salve or petroleum jelly and bandage the wound. Clean it once daily with water or diluted hydrogen peroxide. The doctor will let you know if the biopsied mole had suspicious cells. 

The Test: Eye Exam

Recommended: Once a year, ideally.

Before: Whether you’re having an annual exam or a glaucoma screening, skip alcohol, which can dilate blood vessels, and rest your eyes the day before (avoid a late night of computer work). Book your appointment in the morning, when eye pressure is higher, making it easier to detect problems, says Sanjay Asrani, an associate professor of ophthalmology and a glaucoma specialist at the Duke Eye Center, in Durham, North Carolina. Bring a list of all medications you’re taking and your glasses.

During: You’ll look at charts with letters and numbers to assess your vision. Your eyes may be dilated with drops. During a glaucoma test, when the eyes’ internal pressure is measured and your peripheral vision is checked, you’ll press a clicker when you see a flashing light.

After: The dilation of your eyes may take a few hours to wear off. Have a friend take you home or to work, and wear sunglasses outside, since your eyes might be light-sensitive. Your eyes will feel tired and heavy after a glaucoma screening. 

Read More About:Preventative Health

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