If you’re trying to have a baby or have missed your period, you may have considered running out to grab a pregnancy test to confirm.
Home pregnancy tests can be found just about anywhere – even your local dollar store – but will you get accurate results? And when is the best time to take one?
Read on to learn more about how pregnancy tests work, the pros and cons of home pregnancy tests and what to do if you get a positive result.
What is a pregnancy test?
First, it’s helpful to understand that there are two main types of pregnancy tests: urine tests and blood tests.
Home pregnancy tests use your urine to determine if you’re pregnant or not. These are the tests you see lining shelves of your pharmacy, grocery store and retail stores. They are designed to show if your urine contains a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG).
“hCG is released after the fertilized egg attaches to the uterine lining,” said Megan Cheney, MD, an OBGYN with Banner Health in Arizona. “The hormone level doubles every two to three days and usually reaches a level that can be detected by a urine test as early as 10 to 11 days after conception or a couple of days before your expected period.”
On the other hand, blood tests are done under the care of your provider. These tests can detect pregnancy earlier than a home pregnancy, about six to eight days after ovulation. Unlike at-home pregnancy tests, it may take a couple of days to get test results.
The two main types of blood tests are quantitative blood tests and qualitative blood tests.
“A quantitative blood test measures the exact amount of hCG in the blood and gives you an estimate of how far along you are in your pregnancy, while a qualitative blood test only checks for the presence of hCG,” Dr. Cheney said.
The pros of early pregnancy tests
If you want to wait to schedule an appointment with your provider, an at-home pregnancy test can serve as a good first step in knowing whether you’re pregnant or not.
Here are some of the advantages:
You can find pregnancy tests anywhere. As we mentioned earlier, at-home testing kits are available just about anywhere. You can buy them in-store or online — no prescription required!
Pregnancy tests are affordable. Some packages may come with several dipstick tests or test strips or a single test. Prices may vary, but there really is no difference between price and quality. Even the ones that you find at the dollar store can detect a pregnancy.
“All pregnancy tests are 99% accurate if performed correctly, whether you spend $1 or $20,” Dr. Cheney said. “Just make sure they haven’t expired, and you follow the instructions correctly. Most tests last two to three years, however, check the date stamped on the packaging.”
You can do a pregnancy test in the privacy of your own home. No one has to know what’s up. With online ordering, you don’t even have to be seen buying one in-store if you don’t want to.
You’ll know if you’re pregnant or not within minutes. Knowing if you’re pregnant or not can be very exciting, particularly if you’ve been trying for a long time or the pregnancy is the result of fertility treatment. You only have to wait a few minutes.
You can make lifestyle changes sooner. The earlier you know you’re pregnant, the sooner you can modify your diet, alcohol intake and other lifestyle changes.
However, if you’re in the process of trying to conceive, it’s best to abstain from alcohol and to touch base with your provider beforehand regarding other changes you should make, such as to your diet or medications.
The cons of early pregnancy tests
Although home pregnancy tests are accurate, affordable, private and timely, there are some downsides.
Here are some of the disadvantages:
The tests are sensitive. If you let the test sit too long, urine on the test can evaporate and make it look like you have two lines instead of one. Yikes! The best way to avoid this is to read and follow the test’s instructions exactly as recommended.
You may receive a false positive. Another argument against at-home pregnancy tests is the increased chances of detecting a very early miscarriage that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. This is known as a chemical pregnancy.
“Chemical pregnancies are extremely common and rarely indicate underlying health issues, but it can also create false hope, unnecessary heartache and anxiety if you’ve been hoping for a pregnancy,” Dr. Cheney said. “If this is going to be difficult, you would best wait until your period is late before doing a pregnancy test.”
You may receive a false negative. Although these tests can indeed tell you that you’re pregnant in a given menstrual cycle, they can’t tell you that you’re definitely not pregnant. This can up your chances of a false negative result.
A negative test result can happen for a number of reasons, including:
- You test at a very early stage when your levels of hCG (pregnancy hormone) aren't high enough.
- Your menstrual cycle varies in length, or you aren’t tracking the exact date to expect your period.
- You didn’t follow the instructions correctly.
- You’re using an expired pregnancy test.
Pregnancy tests aren’t as good as blood tests. A blood test administered by your provider is the most sensitive test and can be taken between 7 and 12 days after you conceive.
This test is also combined with other tests to rule out the possibility of an ectopic or tubal pregnancy and to monitor your recovery after a miscarriage.
“Most of the time a confirmatory blood test is not necessary,” Dr. Cheney said. “But if you have vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain or a previous ectopic pregnancy, a blood test may be used by your provider to evaluate if the pregnancy is progressing normally or not.”
What should you do if your home pregnancy test is positive?
If you get a positive line, symbol or other indicators, you want to schedule an appointment with your provider to talk about the next steps.
“It is important to call your doctor after a positive pregnancy test result to determine the location of the pregnancy and rule out life-threatening conditions such as ectopic pregnancy,” Dr. Cheney said. “Your provider can also walk you through some of the symptoms of early pregnancy, such as nausea and vomiting.”
Your provider will also screen for health conditions that may make your pregnancy a high risk, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, history of blood clots or a prior poor pregnancy outcome.
Home pregnancy tests are a quick and hassle-free way of testing whether you are pregnant or not. However, they might sometimes give false-positive or false-negative results as well.
It’s best to consult your health care provider if you’re trying to conceive to ensure you take proper care of yourself and prepare your body well for the upcoming changes.