updated 5/17/2007 12:50:51 PM ET 2007-05-17T16:50:51

For years, by making a quick run to the drug store, couples have easily been able to find out if they're pregnant. The same goes for diabetics who want to check on their blood glucose levels.

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But you had to head to the doctor's office if you wanted to know much more about your health.

No more. Today, thanks to a growing number of home-use health tests, it's becoming just as easy to find out a wide scope of information about your health, from your cholesterol levels to what might be causing your allergies.

The screens, a market regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and available in stores and on the Internet, tend to be fast, affordable and give people access to medical data in a confidential, comfortable setting.

"People are hoping to gain some kind of edge or advantage," says Dr. Don Vickery, a Colorado-based internist and past board member of the American College of Preventive Medicine. "These (tests) sell because all of us, myself included, would like to have more control over our health."

A growing market
Data on the home medical-test industry is hard to come by because most companies are privately held. But it's estimated that the market for the top home diagnostic test, blood glucose monitoring, was worth $5.5 billion in 2005, according to consulting firm Enterprise Analysis. Pregnancy tests had the next biggest market segment, valued at $400 million, followed by ovulation tests, $50 million.

Home Health Testing, a company based in Melbourne, Fla., that was one of the pioneers in offering home health-test kits on the Internet, has seen sales grow by 10 percent to 15 percent annually over the last 10 years, says President Ken Adams.

When the company first started in 1996, home tests mainly consisted of urinary drug-and-alcohol tests, used mostly by beleaguered parents looking to keep their children away from trouble. Currently, the company sells over 30 FDA-approved, home-use medical tests made by more than 20 manufacturers.

"The biggest growth in the market has been the addition of people who are looking for a wide variety of home medical tests such as cholesterol and colon cancer tests, " says Adams.

Initially, most home-use medical tests were derived from FDA-approved tests designed for professional use. Once they had an established track record, manufacturers simplified the instructions and resubmitted the tests to the FDA for home-use approval. Now, Adams says, tests frequently go straight into the home market.

And while the medical world once saw the tests as controversial, many are now accepted as safe and effective — if they're used correctly, that is.

Dr. Steven Gutman, director of the Office of In Vitro Diagnostic Device Evaluation and Safety for the FDA, says too many people treat test instructions like the VCR or microwave manual and don't read them, missing out on important steps.

"My No. 1 request, advice, admonition is to please read the instructions," Gutman says.

Beyond tests that detect and monitor health conditions, there's also a new crop of tests that manufacturers say don't require FDA approval and can help people avoid foods or beverages that might affect their health.

Affordable and accessible
Julie Jumonville, vice president of product development for the new mom and baby health, safety and wellness company, UpSpring, thinks these and diagnostic tests are on the rise for much the same reason that drug and grocery stores are opening walk-in clinics across the country. They're affordable and accessible.

"I just think we're convenience moms," Jumonville says. "It's hard to traipse everybody to the doctor to ask a question. These point-of-care tests are getting more popular because you can order them on the Internet."

Last year Jumonville created Milkscreen, a product that tests breast milk for alcohol. To use it, nursing moms saturate a reactive pad with milk that changes colors if alcohol is present. As a nursing mom a few years ago, Jumonville wanted to have a glass of wine at her sister-in-law's wedding but didn't want to pass on alcohol to her baby.

Given that most women abstain from drinking during pregnancy and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for a baby's first six months and continued breastfeeding until the baby turns one, Jumonville says it's unrealistic to think a mom wouldn't have an occasional drink during the time frame. She thinks the product makes it easier for women to continue breastfeeding and that it prevents unnecessary pumping and dumping by careful moms. To date, more than 65,000 strips have been sold.

In the next few years, consumers also might be able to test their coffee to find out if it's really decaffeinated. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are perfecting a dipstick test that in two minutes could detect if a beverage contains more than 35 milligrams of caffeine. The average 8-ounce cup of decaf coffee has 5 to 10 milligrams of caffeine. The product could help pregnant women and insomnia-sufferers trying to avoid the ingredient.

"People I think want to know what they're consuming," says Dan Crimmins, principal research scientist and co-author of a 2006 study on the test. "It's not that they don't trust labels, they just want to make sure for themselves."

Choosing a test
If you choose to use any kind of home health test, Vickery suggests taking time to think about what you're trying to get out of it and what decisions the results will affect. You can't always be sure you're getting useful information, he says.

Few people enjoy getting a colonoscopy, but a home test that detects blood in stool samples, which could suggest colon cancer, probably won't negate your need for a trip to the doctor's office.

"Is a test for blood in your stool of use?" he asks. "What do I have if the test is positive? There are lots of reasons to have blood in your stool. Do I really know anything more? You still have to go to the doctor."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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