Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) Test during Pregnancy

An alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) test happens to be a blood test that does measure the amount of AFP present which is present in the blood. It is usually part of what is referred to as a triple screen or a quad screen in the second trimester of pregnancy. However, it can also be rather useful for adults who are not pregnant.

The yolk sac, GI tract, and liver of an unborn baby does produce AFP. It then also circulates through the fetal as well as maternal blood. Individuals who are not pregnant still do have some AFP in their blood, but levels are usually normally low. High levels of AFP in adults who are not pregnant usually indicate certain types of liver disease.

Why does one need an alpha-Fetoprotein test?

An AFP test is indeed a routine screening test that is given to expectant mothers between the 14th as well as 22nd weeks of their pregnancy. It is very accurate between the 16th and 18th weeks, so it is important to know exactly when one becomes became pregnant.

AFP testing is usually part of a quad screen. This screening exam also does test one’s levels of:

• human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG)
• estriol, which is a hormone produced by one’s placenta and one’s baby’s liver
• inhibin A, which is a hormone produced by one’s placenta

Doctors do make use of quad screen results, one’s age and one’s ethnicity to help determine the chances that one’s unborn baby has a genetic birth defect. Defects are detected by this type of screening can include neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, and chromosomal abnormalities, such as Down syndrome. The AFP results will rather help one’s doctor determine if one needs further tests for these conditions. A positive test does not necessarily mean one’s unborn baby will have a birth defect.

The AFP test is especially important for women who are at high risk of having children with birth defects, including women:

• who are 35 or older
• with a family history of birth defects
• who used harmful medications or drugs during their pregnancies
• who have diabetes

If one was not pregnant, an AFP test can also help to diagnose and monitor certain liver conditions, such as liver cancer, cirrhosis as well as hepatitis. It can also help in detecting several other cancers, including cancers of the:

• testes
• ovaries
• biliary tract
• stomach
• pancreas

Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP) Test during PregnancyWhat risks are associated with an alpha-fetoprotein test?

There are of course very few risks that are linked up with having one’s blood drawn for an AFP test. One might feel slightly faint or have some soreness or even pain at the puncture site. There is indeed a small chance of excessive bleeding or hematoma, which does occur when blood does accumulate under one’s skin. There is the slight risk of infection at the puncture site.

How is an alpha-fetoprotein test performed?

One needs to get one’s blood drawn for an AFP test. Having blood drawn is an, of course, an outpatient procedure that is usually performed at a diagnostic lab. The procedure does take only a few minutes and is also relatively painless. No special preparation is necessary before an AFP test.

A healthcare professional will also make use of a small needle to withdraw blood from a vein, usually in one’s arm or hand. A laboratory specialist will rather analyze the sample. Results are typically available within one to two weeks.

What do the test results mean?

For women who are not pregnant as well as men, the normal amount of AFP is usually less than 10 nanograms per milliliter of blood. If one AFP level is unusually high but one is not pregnant, it may also indicate the presence of certain cancers or liver diseases.

If one is pregnant and has higher-than-normal AFP levels, it can also indicate a neural tube defect in one’s developing baby. In fact, the most common cause of elevated AFP levels is rather an inaccurate dating of the pregnancy. AFP levels do vary widely during pregnancy. The test will be inaccurate if one is pregnant for a longer or shorter period of time than one thought.

If one is pregnant and one’s AFP level is unusually low, it could also indicate that one’s fetus has a chromosomal abnormality, such as Down syndrome or Edwards syndrome.

One can have an abnormal AFP reading on account of multiple pregnancies, such as having twins or triplets. An abnormal AFP reading can also be due to fetal death.

If one has abnormal test results, it does not imply necessarily that one’s child will have a birth defect. It only indicates that more tests are necessary for one’s doctor to make a diagnosis. One’s doctor may perform another AFP test followed by an ultrasound to record images of one’s unborn child.

One’s doctor may order a more invasive test, such as an amniocentesis if one’s results are still abnormal. In amniocentesis, one’s doctor does make use of a needle to withdraw a small amount of amniotic fluid from around the fetus for analysis.

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About the Author: Danteshwari Bhaskar

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