Category Archives: Health

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Stages of puberty: what happens to boys and girls

Stages of puberty: what happens to boys and girls

Puberty is when a child’s body begins to develop and change as they become an adult. Girls develop breasts and start their periods, and boys develop a deeper voice and start to look like men.

The average age for girls to begin puberty is 11, while for boys the average age is 12. But there’s no set timetable, so don’t worry if your child reaches puberty before or after their friends. It’s completely normal for puberty to begin at any point from the ages of 8 to 14. The process takes about four years overall.

Late or early puberty

Children who begin puberty either very early (before the age of 8) or very late (after 14) should see a doctor to rule out an underlying medical condition.

Read more about puberty problems.

This page covers:

First signs of puberty in girls

  • The first sign of puberty in girls is usually that their breasts begin to develop. It’s normal for breast buds to sometimes be very tender or for one breast to start to develop several months before the other one
  • Pubic hair also starts to grow and some girls may notice more hair on their legs and arms.  

Later signs of puberty in girls

After a year or so of puberty beginning, and for the next couple of years:

  • Girls’ breasts continue to grow and become fuller.
  • Around two years after beginning puberty, girls usually have their first period. Read more about starting periods.
  • Pubic hair becomes coarser and curlier.
  • Underarm hair begins to grow. Some girls also have hair in other parts of their body, such as their top lip. This is completely normal.
  • Girls start to sweat more.
  • Girls often get acne – a skin condition that shows up as different types of spots including whiteheads, blackheads and pus-filled spots called pustules.
  • Girls have a white vaginal discharge.
  • Girls go through a growth spurt. From the time their periods start, girls grow 5-7.5 cm (2-3 inches) annually over the next year or two, then reach their adult height.
  • Most girls gain weight – and it’s normal for this to happen – as their body shape changes. Girls develop more body fat along their upper arms, thighs and upper back; their hips grow rounder and their waist gets narrower.

After about four years of puberty in girls

  • Breasts becomes adult-like.
  • Pubic hair has spread to the inner thigh.
  • Genitals should now be fully developed.
  • Girls stop growing taller.

First signs of puberty in boys

  • The first sign of puberty in boys is usually that their testicles get bigger and the scrotum begins to thin and redden.
  • Pubic hair also starts to appear at the base of the penis.

Later signs of puberty in boys

After a year or so of puberty starting, and for the next couple of years:

  • The penis and testicles grow and the scrotum gradually becomes darker. Read more about penis health
  • Pubic hair becomes thicker and curlier.
  • Underarm hair starts to grow.
  • Boys start to sweat more.
  • Breasts can swell slightly temporarily – this is normal and is not the same as “man-boobs”.
  • Boys may have “wet dreams” (involuntary ejaculations of semen as they sleep). 
  • Their voice “breaks” and gets permanently deeper. For a while, a boy might find his voice goes very deep one minute and very high the next.
  • Boys often develop acne – a skin condition that shows up as different types of spots, including whiteheads, blackheads and pus-filled spots called pustules. 
  • Boys go through a growth spurt and become taller by an average of 7-8cms, or around 3 inches a year, and more muscular. 

After about four years of puberty in boys

  • Genitals look like an adult’s and pubic hair has spread to the inner thighs.
  • Facial hair begins to grow and boys may start shaving.
  • Boys get taller at a slower rate and stop growing completely at around 16 years of age (but may continue to get more muscular). 
  • Most boys will have reached full adult maturity by 18 years of age. 

Mood changes in puberty

Puberty can be a difficult time for children. They’re coping with changes in their body, and possibly acne or body odour as well, at a time when they feel self-conscious.

Puberty can also be an exciting time, as children develop new emotions and feelings. But the “emotional rollercoaster” they’re on can have psychological and emotional effects, such as:

For more information on what to expect and how to handle puberty-related mood changes, read our articles on teen aggression, coping with your teenager and talking to your teen.

Puberty support for children

If children are worried or confused about any part of puberty, it may help them to talk to a close friend or relative.

Puberty support for parents and carers

  • “Surviving Adolescence  a toolkit for parents” is a leaflet that gives parents and carers clear information on what to expect when children hit adolescence, including why they’re likely to become sulky, suddenly start dieting, have crushes on friends, and crave excitement.
  • The FPA (formerly the Family Planning Association) has a range of online leaflets that give advice on talking to your children about growing up, sex and relationships. 

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Using e-cigarettes to stop smoking

Using e-cigarettes to stop smoking

Over recent years, e-cigarettes have become a very popular stop smoking aid in the UK. Evidence is still developing on how effective they are, but many people have found them helpful for quitting.

An electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) is a device that allows you to inhale nicotine without most of the harmful effects of smoking.

E-cigarettes work by heating and creating a vapour from a solution that typically contains nicotine; a thick, colourless liquid called propylene glycol and/or glycerine; and flavourings. As there is no burning involved, there is no smoke.

E-cigarettes do not produce tar and carbon monoxide  two of the main toxins in conventional cigarette smoke. The vapour from e-cigarettes has been found to contain some potentially harmful chemicals also found in cigarette smoke, but at much lower levels.

Benefits and risks of e-cigarettes

E-cigarettes are still fairly new and we won’t have a full picture on their safety until they have been in use for many years. However, on current evidence, they carry a fraction of the risk of cigarettes and they can help you stop smoking.

If you want to use an e-cigarette to help you quit, you’ll give yourself the best chance if you get expert support from your local NHS stop smoking service. 

Find your nearest NHS stop smoking service from the NHS Smokefree website, or call the Smokefree National Helpline to speak to a trained adviser on 0300 123 1044.

In the year up to April 2015, two out of three people who used e-cigarettes in combination with the NHS stop smoking service quit smoking successfully.

Different things work for different people and, particularly if you’ve already tried other methods of quitting smoking without success, you might want to give e-cigarettes a go.

Read more about stopping smoking using e-cigarettes.

Reporting safety concerns

It’s important that any e-cigarette safety concerns are reported and monitored.

There are two types of safety concern associated with e-cigarettes:

  • a fault with the e-cigarette device that could make it unsafe to use
  • side effects to your health caused by using your e-cigarette

You can report any safety concern regarding your e-cigarette through the Yellow Card Scheme.

E-cigarettes on prescription

Currently, there are no e-cigarettes on the market that are licensed as medicines, meaning they are not available on prescription from the NHS. 

Once medicinally licensed e-cigarette products come onto the market, GPs and stop smoking services will be able to prescribe them alongside other stop smoking medicines.

Read about other stop smoking treatments.

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How to get more fibre into your diet

How to get more fibre into your diet

Most of us need to eat more fibre and have fewer added sugars in our diet. Eating plenty of fibre is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.

Government guidelines published in July 2015 say that our dietary fibre intake should increase to 30g a day, as part of a healthy balanced diet. As most adults are only eating an average of about 18g day, we need to find ways of increasing our intake.

Children under the age of 16 don’t need as much fibre in their diet as older teenagers and adults, but they still need more than they get currently:

  • 2-5 year-olds: need about 15g of fibre a day
  • 5-11 year-olds: need about 20g
  • 11-16 year-olds: need about 25g

On average, children and teenagers are only getting around 15g or less of fibre a day. Encouraging them to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and starchy foods (choosing wholegrain versions and potatoes with the skins on where possible) can help to ensure they are eating enough fibre.

Why do we need fibre in our diet?

There is strong evidence that eating plenty of fibre (commonly referred to as roughage) is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.

Choosing foods with fibre also makes us feel fuller, while a diet rich in fibre can help digestion and prevent constipation.

Find out more about the importance of fibre and when you may need to reduce your intake, in Why is fibre important?

Tips to increase your fibre intake

It’s important to get fibre from a variety of sources, as eating too much of one type of food may not provide you with a healthy balanced diet. 

To increase your fibre intake you could:

  • Choose a higher-fibre breakfast cereal such as plain wholewheat biscuits (like Weetabix) or plain shredded whole grain (like Shredded wheat), or porridge as oats are also a good source of fibre. Find out more about healthy breakfast cereals.
  • Go for wholemeal or granary breads, or higher fibre white bread, and choose wholegrains like wholewheat pasta, bulgur wheat or brown rice.
  • Go for potatoes with their skins on, such as a baked potato or boiled new potatoes. Find out more about starchy foods and carbohydrates.
  • Add pulses like beans, lentils or chickpeas to stews, curries and salads.
  • Include plenty of vegetables with meals, either as a side dish or added to sauces, stews or curries. Find out more about how to get your 5 A DAY.
  • Have some fresh or dried fruit, or fruit canned in natural juice for dessert. Because dried fruit is sticky, it can increase the risk of tooth decay, so it’s better if it is only eaten as part of a meal, rather than as a between-meal snack.
  • For snacks, try fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, rye crackers, oatcakes and unsalted nuts or seeds.

Fibre in your daily diet

Listed below is the fibre content of some example meals.

Fibre at breakfast

Two thick slices of wholemeal toasted bread (6.5g of fibre) topped with one sliced banana (1.4g) and a small glass of fruit smoothie drink (1.5g) will give you around 9.4g of fibre.

Fibre at lunch

A baked jacket potato with the skin on (2.6g) with a 200g portion of reduced-sugar and reduced-salt baked beans in tomato sauce (9.8g) followed by an apple (1.2g) will give you around 13.6g of fibre.

Fibre at dinner

Mixed vegetable tomato-based curry cooked with onion and spices (3.3g) with wholegrain rice (2.8g) followed by a lower fat fruit yoghurt (0.4g) will give you around 6.5g of fibre. Bear in mind that fruit yoghurts can sometimes be high in added sugars, so check the label and try to choose lower-sugar versions.

Fibre as a snack

A small handful of nuts can have up to 3g of fibre. Make sure you choose unsalted nuts, such as plain almonds, without added sugars.

Total: Around 32.5g of fibre

Fibre on food labels

The above example is only an illustration, as the amount of fibre in any food can depend on how it is made or prepared and on how much of it you eat. Most pre-packaged foods have a nutrition label on the side or back of the packaging, which often gives you a guide about how much dietary fibre the food contains.

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Passive smoking: protect your family and friends

Passive smoking: protect your family and friends

Secondhand smoke is dangerous, especially for children. The best way to protect loved ones is to quit smoking. At the very least, make sure you have a smokefree home and car.

When you smoke a cigarette (or roll-up, pipe or cigar), most of the smoke doesn’t go into your lungs, it goes into the air around you where anyone nearby can breathe it in.

Secondhand smoke is the smoke that you exhale plus the ‘sidestream’ smoke created by the lit end of your cigarette.

When friends and family breathe in your secondhand smoke – what we call passive smoking – it isn’t just unpleasant for them, it can damage their health too.

People who breathe in secondhand smoke regularly are more likely to get the same diseases as smokers, including lung cancer and heart disease.

Pregnant women exposed to passive smoke are more prone to premature birth and their baby is more at risk of low birthweight and cot death.

And children who live in a smoky house are at higher risk of breathing problems, asthma, and allergies.

How to protect against secondhand smoke

The only surefire way to protect your friends and family from secondhand smoke is to keep the environment around them smoke free.

The best way to do that is to quit smoking completely. If you’re not ready to quit, make every effort to keep your cigarette smoke away from other people and never smoke indoors or in the car.

  • Always smoke outside
  • Ask your visitors to smoke outside
  • Don’t smoke in the car or allow anyone else to

Take steps NOW to stop smoking.

The risks of passive smoking

Secondhand smoke is a lethal cocktail of more than 4,000 irritants, toxins and cancer-causing substances.

Most secondhand smoke is invisible and odourless, so no matter how careful you think you’re being, people around you still breathe in the harmful poisons.

Opening windows and doors or smoking in another room in the house doesn’t protect people. Smoke can linger in the air for two to three hours after you’ve finished a cigarette, even with a window open. And even if you limit smoking to one room, the smoke will spread to the rest of the house where people can inhale it.

Is passive smoking harmful?

Read about stop smoking treatments.

Children and passive smoking

Passive smoking is especially harmful for children as they have less well-developed airways, lungs and immune systems.

It’s estimated that more than one in five children in the UK live in a household where at least one person smokes and, as a result, they’re more likely to develop:

Children are particularly vulnerable in the family car where secondhand smoke can reach hazardous levels even with the windows open.

It’s estimated that smoking in cars produces concentrations of toxins up to 11 times higher than you used to find in the average smoky pub.

To protect children, there is a new ban on smoking in cars and other vehicles carrying children. From October 1 2015 it is against the law to smoke in a private vehicle if there’s a young person under-18 present.

Read about the new law on smoking in private vehicles.

How safe is e-cig vapour?

E-cigarettes don’t produce tobacco smoke so the risks of passive smoking with conventional cigarettes don’t apply to e-cigs.

Research into this area is ongoing, but it seems that e-cigs release negligible amounts of nicotine into the atmosphere and the limited evidence available suggests that any risk from passive vaping to bystanders is small relative to tobacco cigarettes.

In England, the Government has no plans to ban vaping indoors (although some employers have banned them in the workplace) but some health professionals recommend avoiding using them around pregnant women, babies and children.

Read about the safety of e-cigarettes.

Your GP can give you advice about quitting smoking.

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BBC newsreader donates kidney to save mother

BBC newsreader donates kidney to save mother

A BBC news presenter who donated a kidney to save his mother’s life says her health has been ‘completely transformed’ since having the operation.

Sabet Choudhury was told his mother Sakina, 70, could have only three years to live after her kidneys failed.

He said he had “little choice” but to donate a kidney, as she could have been waiting 10 years for a transplant because of the lack of deceased donors among black and Asian people.

“She could have waited to find a kidney from someone on the Organ Donor Register, but that would have taken a long time, which she did not necessarily have,” he said.

The operation was a success, but he said the wait for other black and minority ethnic (BME) families could be “long and fatal”.

Transplants are more likely to be successful if the donor is of a similar ethnic background because blood and tissue types are more likely to match, according to NHS Blood and Transplant.

Sabet, a presenter for BBC Points West news in southwest England, is urging more black and Asian people to register to donate organs.

‘New lease of life’

Sakina, who is of Bangladeshi origin, suffered kidney failure in December 2013. Doctors said she needed a new kidney and immediately began searching for a donor.

Sabet, 41, from Gloucester, said it had been hard to watch his mother having to be hooked up to a dialysis machine three times a week with a “pretty poor quality of life”.

“Dialysis keeps you alive, but it doesn’t make you better,” he said. Many patients, especially older people, only survive for a few years on dialysis and need a transplant to save their life.

“You don’t want to see that happen in front of your eyes, that quickly, knowing you can do something about it,” said Sabet.

After months of tests, Sabet was told he would be a suitable donor. About a third of all kidney transplants carried out in the UK are from living donors.

His initial fear was the procedure would affect his health, but he was back at work within six weeks of the three-hour operation, carried out in Bristol in November 2014.

“I’ve returned to full health since the operation,” he said. “In fact I’m probably healthier now because the process has made me more health conscious.”

He said the new kidney has given his mother a new lease of life. “The difference between how she is now and how she was before is like night and day. She looks 10 years younger.

“Being free of that dialysis machine … it’s as if her arms and legs have been untied. She has rediscovered a lust for life that I thought she would never have again.”

‘You could save nine lives’

People from an ethnic minority background have to wait around 10 months longer than average for kidney transplants because of the shortage of matching donors.

Only 3.5% of people from ethnic minorities are on the Organ Donor Register, while more than a third of those needing a transplant are from ethnic minorities.

“My view is that if you are prepared to take, you should also be prepared to give,” said Sabet. “You will be helping people in your own community. One person donating their organs could save nine lives. That’s a beautiful thing.

“If you do sign up, it’s a good idea to tell family and friends about your intentions,” he said. If you register your wishes without telling the people closest to you, it may come as a surprise when they are trying to deal with their loss.

“Telling your loved ones that you want to be a donor will make it easier for them to agree to the donation in the event of your death,” said Sabet.

Some people may be reluctant to donate organs, believing it goes against their religion, but the major religions in the UK all support the principles of organ donation and transplantation.

Find out what your religion says about organ donation on the Organ Donation website.

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Family alerts travellers to deadly fake alcohol

Family alerts travellers to deadly fake alcohol

The family of a British backpacker who died after drinking gin which had been mixed with methanol have launched a campaign to warn travellers of the dangers of fake alcohol.

Cheznye Emmons, 23, was fatally poisoned after drinking the counterfeit gin, which she bought from a shop in a sealed bottle sporting a familiar brand while travelling in Indonesia in 2013.

Methanol (also known as methyl alcohol) is a colourless liquid with a mild alcohol odour. When ingested, it is extremely poisonous and is known to cause blindness, kidney failure, seizures and death.

The chemical is deliberately added to strengthen or stretch illegal alcoholic drinks, especially spirits, some of which are being sold in bars, shops and hotels in popular tourist areas such as Bali, Lombok and Sumatra.

Bottles ‘look genuine’

The practice is common in many parts of the world. However, Indonesia has recently been singled out following a number of deaths and cases of serious illness of locals and foreigners.

Some fake alcohol on sale in Indonesia has been found to contain concentrations of methanol 44,000 times above safe levels.

Figures suggest 280 people have died from illicit alcohol poisoning since 2011 in Indonesia. Three Brits have died from methanol poisoning in the country in the last five years.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises tourists to “take extreme care when purchasing spirit-based drinks, as bottles may appear to be genuine when they are not.”

The FCO reports that there have also been cases of methanol poisoning from drinking adulterated “arak” or “arrack” – a local rice or palm liquor.

‘Save a Life’ campaign

The Emmons family set up the Save a Life Campaign soon after Cheznye’s death and have created a poster for GP surgeries warning people travelling to Indonesia, including Bali, of the dangers of counterfeit alcohol.

Measha Emmons, Cheznye’s sister, says: “The bottle may be sealed and it may look genuine but it may still have been contaminated with methanol. You won’t be able to taste the difference.”

Cheznye, who was travelling with her boyfriend, first showed signs of methanol poisoning when she woke up a day after drinking the fake gin unable to see. She died five days later in hospital.

Signs of methanol poisoning

The first signs of methanol poisoning include drowsiness, feeling unsteady and loss of inhibition, but these are often confused with the effects of drinking alcohol and may not be noticed.

It can be several hours before the major symptoms of methanol poisoning appear including:

  • headache
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • dizziness
  • feeling breathless
  • impaired vision and, in severe cases, blindness

Without prompt treatment, the poison will continue to build up and can lead to convulsions, coma and death. Patients who survive may suffer permanent visual impairment.

Methanol poisoning can be treated by giving the patient fomepizole or ethanol through an intravenous drip to try to reduce the level of poisoning and dialysis to remove toxic substances from the kidneys.

Tips on staying safe

Here’s a checklist to help you reduce your risk of methanol poisoning:

  • Don’t buy illegal alcoholic drinks.
  • If the price of your alcoholic drink looks too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Buy alcoholic drinks from a reputable vendor and check bottle seals are intact.
  • Be suspicious of alcoholic drinks offered for sale in informal settings that are not licensed to sell alcohol, such as market stalls.
  • Steer clear of alcoholic drinks sold in unlabelled containers
.
  • Check branded products for labels that are poorly printed or with errors, or bottles with broken seals. Do not buy these.
  • Be aware of the signs of methanol poisoning and seek medical attention 
immediately if you suspect you or a companion have ingested methanol.

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Breast changes in older women

Breast changes in older women

As you get older, it’s natural for your breasts to lose their firmness, change shape, shrink in size and become more prone to certain abnormal lumps.

In most cases, breast lumps are harmless but, whatever your age, it’s important that you report any new lumps to your doctor.

From around the age of 40, you can expect your breasts to change in size and shape. It’s normal for breast tissue to become less glandular and more fatty as you get older, which makes them feel less firm and full.

With age, there’s also an increasing risk of abnormal growths in the breast. These are often harmless breast lumps, like cysts, but they can also be a sign of serious conditions like breast cancer.

As the years go by, you might also notice a wider space between your breasts and that your breasts shrink in size, sometimes by a cup size or more (unless you put on weight, in which case your breasts may get bigger). The area around the nipple (the areola) tends to become smaller and may nearly disappear, and the nipple may turn in slightly.

Many of the breast changes that happen as you get older are caused by hormonal changes.

Declining oestrogen levels at the menopause make breast tissue dehydrated and less elastic, so that your breasts lose their once rounded shape and begin to sag.

On the plus side, you may stop having any of the premenstrual lumps, pain or nipple discharge that you used to have.

Breast cancer screening

Screening for breast cancer is currently offered on the NHS to women aged 50-70 in England. However, it’s in the process of being extended as a trial to some women aged 47-73.

Breast screening uses an X-ray test called a mammogram that can spot cancers when they are too small to see or feel.

This short video explains what happens when you have a mammogram.

It’s your choice whether to have breast screening, but bear in mind that most experts believe it’s beneficial in picking up breast cancer early.

If you’re over 70, you’ll stop receiving screening invitations through the post, but you can still carry on with screening if you want to. To arrange an appointment, contact your local breast screening unit.

Find breast screening units in your area.

Read more about breast cancer screening.

Dense breasts

Young women who have not yet gone through the menopause often have what’s known as dense breasts.

Dense breasts contain more glandular and less fat tissue than usual. It’s not the same as having firm breasts and it has nothing to do with how big or what shape your breasts are.

Having dense breasts isn’t abnormal and it’s not something that you can change, but a potential drawback is that dense breasts can make breast cancer screening more difficult, because the dense tissue can mask potential tumours on a mammogram.

Breast tissue tends to become less dense as you get older, especially after the menopause, so it becomes easier to detect breast cancers on a mammogram.

Breast lumps

Breast lumps are common around the menopause. They’re usually cysts, which are harmless lumps filled with fluid. But if you notice a lump, don’t wait to be offered screening  see your GP, to rule out breast cancer.

Breast cancer is most common in women over 50. Other warning signs of breast cancer include:

  • puckering of the skin
  • nipple changes (like scaling or discharge)
  • a swollen, red or “inflamed” breast

Read more about breast lumps.

Women over 70

Women over 70 are particularly at risk of breast cancer, because a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer increases with age. Don’t assume that because you’re in your 70s or older that you’re in the clear. Always report any unusual breast symptoms to your doctor.

Find out how to spot breast lumps.

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Stay gas safe this summer

Stay gas safe this summer

Gas safety is just as important in the summer as it is in the winter. Poorly maintained appliances and boilers can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, which can be fatal. Find out how you can keep safe.

Gas central heating may be turned off in the summer, but your boiler is still being used for hot water and, perhaps, you use a gas cooker.

Remember the barbecue, too, which is often gas. More than 40% of us own a gas barbecue and 30% of us use it weekly to produce simple meals to enjoy outdoors.

How do appliances cause carbon monoxide poisoning?

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous gas produced when fuel such as gas (or charcoal or petrol) burns incompletely. Inadequately installed or poorly maintained appliances and boilers increase the risk of carbon monoxide being produced.

You can’t see, taste or smell carbon monoxide. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported that last year 319 people were killed or injured due to carbon monoxide poisoning.

It is important to look out for the warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning and to seek urgent medical attention from your GP or accident and emergency department.

It is not always possible to check gas appliances for signs they are not working properly, such as lazy yellow flames instead of crisp blue ones. It is better to ensure that all gas appliances are checked annually by a Gas Safe engineer.

Gas safety checklist

If you are going on holiday in the UK or abroad, follow these tips to protect yourself and your family:

  • All gas appliances, including gas barbecues, should be given an annual safety check by a Gas Safe registered engineer.
  • By law, all gas appliances in rented properties in the UK, whether a long-term rental or short-term holiday let, must have an annual safety check. This also applies to motorhomes and caravans. Ask to see the current gas safety record.
  • Never use a smouldering or lit barbecue (gas or charcoal), gas or paraffin stove, light or heater in a tent, caravan, motorhome or under an awning unless it is a permanent fixture that has been installed and maintained correctly.
  • Make sure you know how to use any gas appliances, including barbecues. This is to help prevent the risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Fit a carbon monoxide alarm in your home, preferably one that emits an audible signal. Make sure it is approved to the latest British or European Standard (BS Kitemark or EN 50291). Take a portable one with you on holiday and, particularly when taking it abroad, make sure it will work at your destination.

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NHS screening

NHS screening

Screening is a way of finding out if people are at higher risk of a health problem, so that early treatment can be offered or information given to help them make informed decisions.

This page gives an overview of screening, with links to the different types of screening offered by the NHS in England.

What is screening?

What types of screening are offered by the NHS in England?

Benefits, risks and limitations of screening

What is screening?

Screening is a way of identifying apparently healthy people who may have an increased risk of a particular condition. The NHS offers a range of screening tests to different sections of the population.

The aim is to offer screening to the people who are most likely to benefit from it. For example, some screening tests are only offered to newborn babies, while others such as breast screening and abdominal aortic aneurysm screening are only offered to older people.

Screening results

If you get a normal result (a screen negative result) after a screening test, this means you are at low risk of having the condition you were screened for. This does not mean that you will never develop the condition in the future, just that you are low risk at the moment.

If you have a higher-risk result (a screen positive result), it means you may have the condition that you’ve been tested for. At this point, you will be offered further tests (called diagnostic tests) to confirm if you have the condition. You can then be offered treatment, advice and support.

Finding out about a problem early can mean that treatment is more effective. However, screening tests are not perfect and they can lead to difficult decisions about having further tests or treatment.

Read on to find out about the benefits, risks and limitations of screening.

What types of screening are offered by the NHS in England?

An independent expert group called the UK National Screening Committee (UK NSC) advises the NHS, in all four UK countries, on which screening programmes to offer. The NHS screening programmes currently offered in England are listed below. For more detailed information on each type of screening, follow the links.

You can also view screening timelines.

Screening in pregnancy

Pregnant women are offered the following types of screening:

Screening for newborn babies

Newborn babies are offered:

Diabetic eye screening

From the age of 12, all people with diabetes are offered an annual diabetic eye test to check for early signs of diabetic retinopathy.  

Cervical screening

Cervical screening is offered to women aged 25 to 64 to check the health of cells in the cervix. It is offered every three years for those aged 26 to 49, and every five years from the ages of 50 to 64.

Breast screening

Breast screening is offered to women aged 50 to 70 to detect early signs of breast cancer. Women over 70 can self-refer.

Bowel cancer screening

There are two types of screening for bowel cancer.

A home testing kit is offered to men and women aged 60 to 74.

Bowel scope screening uses a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end to look at the large bowel. It is offered to men and women at the age of 55 in some parts of England.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening

AAA screening is offered to men in their 65th year to detect abdominal aortic aneurysms (a dangerous swelling in the aorta). Men over 65 can self-refer.

Benefits, risks and limitations of screening

Making an informed choice

Before having any screening test, it’s worth finding out about the test itself and what would happen next if you found out you have a higher risk of a particular condition.

Deciding whether or not to have a screening test is a personal choice and one which only you can make. When you are invited for screening, you will receive an information leaflet about the screening test. You can discuss any aspect of the screening test with your health professional and decide whether or not it’s right for you.

Different types of screening have different benefits and risks. Some of these are listed below.

The benefits of having a screening test include:

  • Screening can detect a problem early, before you have any symptoms.
  • Finding out about a problem early can mean that treatment is more effective.
  • Finding out you have a health problem or an increased risk of a health problem can help people make better informed decisions about their health.
  • Screening can reduce the risk of developing a condition or its complications.
  • Screening can save lives.

The risks and limitations of screening include:

  • Screening tests are not 100% accurate. You could be told you have a problem when you don’t – this is called a “false positive” and may lead to some people having unnecessary further tests or treatment as a result of screening. A screening test could also miss a problem – this is called a “false negative” and could lead to people ignoring symptoms in the future.
  • Some screening tests can lead to difficult decisions. For example, if a pregnancy screening test tells you your baby has a higher risk of a particular condition, you may then be faced with a decision about having further diagnostic tests that involve a risk to your pregnancy. If the diagnostic test is positive, you may then need to decide whether to continue with your pregnancy.
  • Finding out you may have a health problem can cause considerable anxiety.
  • Even if your screening test result is normal or negative (i.e. you are not at high risk), you could still go on to develop the condition.

How does the NHS decide which types of screening to offer?

An expert group called the UK NSC advises the NHS on which screening programmes to offer.

When considering who to screen and which conditions to screen for, the benefits of offering a screening programme are weighed up against the harms. The UK NSC only recommends screening when it believes the benefits to the group offered screening outweigh the harms.

The UK NSC regularly reviews its recommendations on screening for different conditions as new research becomes available. This is usually done every three years.

Find out how the UK NSC reviews evidence and monitors the quality of screening programmes.

Private screening

All screening tests provided by the NHS are free. Private companies offer a range of screening tests that you have to pay for. Some of the tests on offer are not recommended by the UK NSC because it is not clear that the benefits outweigh the harms.

The UK NSC has produced a downloadable leaflet on private screening.

Confidentiality and use of data

By law, everyone working in, or on behalf of, the NHS must respect your privacy and keep all information about you safe. The NHS Constitution sets out how the NHS should handle your records to protect your privacy. There are also laws in place to ensure that confidentiality is maintained.

Screening records are only shared with staff who need to see them, such as technicians carrying out screening, your GP and any clinicians involved in follow-up tests and treatment. Anonymised data is sometimes used for research purposes to improve screening outcomes and the quality of services provided by the NHS. 

Read more about screening data and confidentiality.

Further information about screening

Questions about screening results

  • For pregnancy or baby screening results, contact your midwife or health visitor.
  • For abdominal aortic aneurism or diabetic eye screening, contact your GP or your local screening programme.
  • For breast screening, cervical screening or bowel cancer screening, contact your GP, who should receive a copy of your results. You can also contact your local breast screening unit, or call the bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 6060.

Questions about symptoms

Speak to your GP if you have any concerns about your health or need to ask about a family history of cancer.

Questions about screening practice and policy (England only)

Contact the PHE screening helpdesk.

Where’s your pain?
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Where’s your pain?

Where’s your pain?

Pain can strike anywhere in the body. Wherever you feel pain, whether it’s in your hip, back, foot or head, use this guide to find the information you need.

Head and neck

Chest, shoulders and back

Arms and hands

Abdomen, pelvis and genitals

Legs and feet

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