Genes and health conditions
Genes are part of the cells in your body. They store instructions for the way your body grows, looks and works. Your genes make you short or tall, have curly or straight hair, have blue eyes or brown eyes. You inherit (get) these genes from your parents.
Just like hair and eye color, parents can pass certain health conditions to their children through genes. A good way to find out about health conditions that you may pass to your baby is to take your family health history. Use this form (.PDF, 424KB) to take your family health history and share it with your health care provider.
What is a gene change?
Sometimes the instructions in genes change. This is called a gene change or a mutation. Parents can pass gene changes to their children. Sometimes a gene change can cause a gene to not work right. Sometimes a gene change can cause health conditions like birth defects, including heart defects, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. A birth defect is a health condition that is present in a baby at birth.
Are all health conditions and birth defects caused by gene changes?
No. Only some health conditions and birth defects are passed directly from parents to children. Others may:
Having a complete family health history can help you and your provider learn more about gene changes and things in your life that may affect your health and your baby’s health.
If you learn that your family has a health condition that gets passed from parent to child, you may want to see a genetic counselor. This is a person who is trained to help you understand about how genes, birth defects and other medical conditions run in families, and how they can affect your health and your baby's health. Ask your health care provider if you need help finding a genetic counselor. Or contact the National Society of Genetic Counselors.
How are gene changes related to ethnicity?
Ethnicity (or ethnic background) means the part of the world or the ethnic groups your ancestors are from. An ethnic group is a group of people, often from the same country, who share language or culture. Ancestors are family members who lived long ago, even before your grandparents.
Your ancestors may be from an ethnic group that is more likely than other groups to have certain health problems that are passed down in families through gene changes. For example:
- Sickle cell disease is more common in African-Americans than in other people. It’s also more common in people from countries like Greece and Italy.
- Tay-Sachs disease is more common in some Eastern European Jewish families than in families who don’t have Eastern European Jewish ancestors.
Ethnicity is an important part of your family health history. This is why our family health history form (.PDF, 424KB) asks about ethnic background of you and your partner. Knowing this information can help you find out about certain health conditions that you could pass to your baby.
Last reviewed January 2014
Most common questions
How do you know you're pregnant?
Knowing the signs of pregnancy can help you tell if you’re pregnant. Here are some signs that you might be pregnant:
If you have any of these pregnancy signs and think you may be pregnant, go to your health care provider. The sooner you know you're pregnant, the sooner you can begin prenatal checkups and start taking good care of yourself and your growing baby.
How soon can I take a pregnancy test?
Home pregnancy tests are usually more accurate when your period is late - about 2 weeks after conception (getting pregnant). If they're done too early, they may say that you're not pregnant when you really are. This is called a false negative. That's why it’s best to take a home pregnancy test when your period is late. Carefully follow the test's instructions. Tests done at a lab or at your health care provider's office are more accurate.
I’m late for my period but my pregnancy test is negative. Why?
If you've taken a home pregnancy test and it's negative (shows that you're not pregnant), you may want to take a blood pregnancy test at your health care provider's office. A blood pregnancy test is more sensitive than a home pregnancy test that checks your urine. The blood pregnancy test can tell a pregnancy very early on.
Pregnancy tests work by looking for the hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a hormone that a woman's body makes during pregnancy. If both a blood and urine test come back negative and you still have a missed period, talk with your health care provider. Things like stress, eating habits, illness or infection can cause changes in your menstrual cycle.
I’ve been trying to get pregnant for 3 months. What’s wrong?
Pregnancy may not occur right away, so there is no need to worry. For most couples, it may take up to 1 year to conceive. If you’ve been trying to get pregnant for more than a year, or 6 months if you're over 35, it may be time to talk with your health care provider. You and your partner can get tests to find out why you are not getting pregnant
Is it possible to ovulate without having a period?
Ovulation is when a woman's ovary releases an egg. This egg travels down into the fallopian tube. If you had sex without using birth control, sperm will swim up to meet your egg so that your egg can be fertilized. If no fertilization occurs, and after about two weeks, your body sheds the unfertilized egg, the uterine lining and blood and tissue that would have nurtured a fertilized egg. This is known as menstruation (your period).
You ovulate before you menstruate. But if you don't get your period, it doesn't necessarily mean that you haven't ovulated. For example, some women have irregular cycles. Even if you're very regular, once in a while your cycle may change. Therefore, it's hard to pinpoint exactly when you ovulate. If you don't get your period, you may want to take a pregnancy test.
What is the best time to get pregnant?
The best time to get pregnant is a few days before ovulation or the day of ovulation. This is because a man's sperm can live up to 72 hours after intercourse and a woman's egg is fertile for 12 to 24 hours after its release. If your periods are regular, use an ovulation calculator. If your periods are irregular, use one of the following. Talk to your health care provider to learn more about the most effective way to use these.
- Purchase a basal body thermometer. Use it to take your temperature before you get out of bed every day. Your temperature goes up by 1 degree when you ovulate.
- Check the mucus in your vagina. It may become thinner, more slippery, clearer and more plentiful just before ovulation.
- Purchase an ovulation prediction kit. Use it to test your urine for a substance called luteinizing hormone (LH). LH increases each month during ovulation.
Have intercourse as close as possible to ovulation to improve your chance of getting pregnant.