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Pregnancy: Should I Have the Maternal Serum Triple or Quadruple Test?
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.
Pregnancy: Should I Have the Maternal Serum Triple or Quadruple Test?
Get the facts
Key points to remember
- Before you have any tests for birth defects, talk about possible outcomes with your partner and your doctor or nurse-midwife. You also need to discuss whether a known birth defect would change your medical, birthing, or parenting plans.
- The triple and quad tests are screening tests. They can't be used to diagnose a birth defect. They only estimate the chance that your fetus has a birth defect. If one of these tests shows a higher-than-normal chance of a birth defect, you would then decide whether to have another test, such as amniocentesis, to find out for sure if there is a problem.
- The triple and quad tests may show a chance of a problem when there isn't one (false-positive result). The quad test is less likely than the triple test to show a false-positive result.
- If you plan to have an amniocentesis, you can skip screening tests.
- A triple or quad test can cost a lot. And some insurance may not pay for it.
The maternal serum triple screen, sometimes called the triple test or MSAFP+ test, measures the amounts of three substances in a pregnant woman's blood:
- Alpha-fetoprotein (AFP)
- Human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG)
- Estriol (uE3)
The levels of these substances help your doctor estimate the chance that your fetus may have Down syndrome, neural tube defects, or certain rare genetic problems. Other things are considered along with the test results to estimate the chance of a problem. For example, your doctor will look at your age, weight, and race, and how far along your pregnancy is.
The quadruple (or quad) test combines the triple screen and a test for the hormone inhibin A, which is produced by the fetus and the placenta. The quad test is a little more accurate than the triple screen, but it might not be available everywhere.
The triple and quad tests are screening tests. They can't be used to diagnose a birth defect.
If your test result shows that your risk of having a fetus with Down syndrome is higher than average for your age, you can decide whether to have another test, such as amniocentesis, that can show for sure if there is a problem.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that all women be offered a screening test for Down syndrome. The risk of having a fetus with a genetic problem increases as a woman gets older. Many doctors use 35 and older as the age when risk increases.
The triple or quad screen finds 80 out of 100 fetuses with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, and about 90 out of 100 with anencephaly.1 The test misses finding 20 out of 100 fetuses with spina bifida and 10 out of 100 with anencephaly.
The quad test finds Down syndrome almost 81 out of 100 times. It doesn't find it 19 out of 100 times.2 The quad test is more likely to find Down syndrome and may be less likely to be false-positive than the triple screen.
A triple or quad screen usually gives accurate results when it is done between 15 and 20 weeks of pregnancy. This is why your doctor might use a fetal ultrasound to find out for sure how far along your pregnancy is.
Normal results tell you that there is no need for more tests unless you have another concern, such as a known genetic disease in your family.
Positive results tell you that there is a higher-than-average chance of a birth defect. But if the average risk for your age is very low, or if your risk is above average but still very low, you may choose not to have more tests.
- If your screening test is positive (and your risk is above average) you may choose to have a fetal ultrasound as soon as possible to check the fetal age and number of fetuses. (The wrong fetal age or pregnancy with twins or more can lead to a false-positive result.) An ultrasound can find neural tube defects up to 99 out of 100 times.1 It won't find these problems 1 time out of 100. But ultrasound isn't as good at finding Down syndrome or genetic diseases.
- If your screening test is positive but the ultrasound shows no problems, you can have an amniocentesis. This test finds Down syndrome about 99 out of 100 times.1 The test doesn't find it about 1 time out of 100. In most cases, the amniocentesis results are normal.
- If your screening test is positive and the ultrasound suggests a possible genetic problem, you may choose to have an amniocentesis.
If a birth defect is found, you decide where to go from there. You may choose to learn all you can about raising a child with Down syndrome or a birth defect. Or you may decide to end the pregnancy.
A triple or quad test is a blood test, so there is little or no physical risk.
The most common risk of the tests is needless worry. There is a chance that the test could show that there's a problem when there isn't one. This is called a false-positive test result. The quad test is less likely than the triple test to show a problem when there isn't one.
But most women have normal test results. Even when the test is positive, most pregnancies turn out to have no problems.
If you don't have a triple or quad test or a test to diagnose a birth defect, your fetus could have a problem that you don't find out about until birth.
- The birth could be higher-risk for the baby if your doctor is not expecting a newborn with health problems.
- You could give birth in a hospital that does not have a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for sick newborns.
- A fetus with a rare, severe defect sometimes dies before delivery.
- You might not be emotionally ready for a sick baby or one with Down syndrome.
Your doctor might recommend a triple or quad test if:
- You have a family history of Down syndrome or birth defects.
- You want a test for birth defects, but you aren't sure if you want to have an amniocentesis.
- You might change your birth or parenting plans if you knew your fetus had a serious problem.
Compare your options
What is usually involved?
What are the benefits?
What are the risks and side effects?
- You have a blood test.
- Based on the result, you decide whether to have more tests, such as fetal ultrasound or amniocentesis.
- You can find out if there is a chance of a problem with your fetus.
- The tests are good at finding a problem if there is one.
- You may have peace of mind if the test is negative.
- The tests have a high chance of showing a problem when there isn't one. This could make you worry.
- The tests can't diagnose a problem, so you might need other tests if the triple or quad test is positive.
- You may decide not to have any tests for birth defects.
- You may have a fetal ultrasound to check for problems.
- You may decide to skip screening tests and have an amniocentesis. This can find out for sure if there is a problem.
- You won't have the worry of a test that may show a problem when there isn't one.
- You can avoid the cost of a screening test and go right to amniocentesis to find out for sure if there is a problem.
- If you don't have any tests for birth defects, your fetus could have a problem that you don't find out about until birth.
- There are no known side effects of fetal ultrasound.
- Amniocentesis has about a 1 out of 400 risk of miscarriage.3 It doesn't lead to a miscarriage 399 out of 400 times. The test also has a risk of bleeding and infection.
Personal stories about deciding to have the triple or quad screen
These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.
I know that I'm at a bit higher risk of having a baby with Down syndrome because of my age. My husband and I don't have any risk factors for having a child with other birth defects. If the screening tests weren't available, I would probably have an amniocentesis even though it has some risks. But since I can have the screening tests, I've decided to start with that and then make a decision about amniocentesis based on the results.
Rachel, age 37
I'm not really worried about things like birth defects that might or might not happen. I don't have any risk factors for having a baby with a birth defect, and I know a lot of women who have had amniocentesis and other tests who spent a lot of time worrying, only to have healthy, normal babies. I feel like the best thing I can do is take good care of myself, stay alert for any signs that there is a problem, and enjoy my pregnancy.
Yvonne, age 31
My neighbor had her first baby at our rural community hospital. The baby had spina bifida, and they rushed her by ambulance to the nearest city and then by helicopter to a center that treats babies with this problem. My neighbor had to follow her later on and so was away from her baby at a really traumatic time. It was such a scary experience for her. I am definitely going to have the screening tests and find out my risk of having a baby that needs special care so we can plan ahead.
Candace, age 26
My husband and I want to have the most definitive information possible to make decisions about my pregnancy, so we are going to start with the chorionic villus sampling. I know it's a little more risky, but we feel like we need as much information as early as we can get it. It took us a little longer than we expected to become pregnant. If there is any chance that the fetus has a birth defect, we want to know that as soon as we can so we can make the best decision for us about whether to continue this pregnancy or end it and give ourselves a chance to try again.
Elena, age 37
What matters most to you?
Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.
Reasons to have a triple or quad test
Reasons to not have the test
I want to know if there's a chance that there could be a problem.
Knowing that there's a problem wouldn't change my birth or parenting plans.
I'm not worried that the test could show a problem when there isn't one.
I'm worried that the test could show a problem when there isn't one.
I want to just have the blood test.
I'd rather have an amniocentesis to find out for sure if there's a problem.
My other important reasons:
My other important reasons:
Where are you leaning now?
Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.
Having a triple or quad test
NOT having the test
What else do you need to make your decision?
Check the facts
A triple or quad blood test can tell me for sure if there's a problem with my fetus.
- TrueSorry, that's not right. These tests can only tell you if there is a chance of a problem. They can't be used to diagnose a problem.
- FalseYou're right. These tests can only tell you if there is a chance of a problem. They can't be used to diagnose a problem.
- I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." These tests can only tell you if there is a chance of a problem. They can't be used to diagnose a problem.
These tests could show that there is a chance of a problem with my fetus when there isn't one.
If a triple or quad test shows no problem, I probably won't need to have more tests for birth defects.
- TrueThat's right. You probably won't need more tests if the triple or quad test shows no problem.
- FalseSorry, that's not right. You probably won't need more tests if the triple or quad test shows no problem.
- I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." You probably won't need more tests if the triple or quad test shows no problem.
Decide what's next
Do you understand the options available to you?
Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?
How sure do you feel right now about your decision?
Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.
Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Siobhan M. Dolan, MD, MPH - Reproductive Genetics|
- Cunningham FG, et al. (2010). Prenatal diagnosis and fetal therapy. In Williams Obstetrics, 23rd ed., pp. 287–311. New York: McGraw-Hill Medical.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2007, reaffirmed 2008). Screening for fetal chromosomal abnormalities. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 77. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 109(1): 217–227.
- Caughey AB, et al. (2006). Chorionic villus sampling compared with amniocentesis and the difference in the rate of pregnancy loss. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 108(3): 612–616.