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Nuchal Translucency Screening Test

Test Overview

The nuchal (say "NEW-kuhl") translucency screening is a test done during pregnancy. It uses ultrasound to measure the thickness of the fluid buildup at the back of the developing baby's neck. If this area is thicker than normal, it can be an early sign of Down syndrome, trisomy 18, or heart problems.

The test is done between 10 and 13 weeks of pregnancy. It may be done as part of the first trimester screening test or the integrated screening test.

This test shows the chance that a baby may have a certain problem. It can't show for sure that a baby has a problem. You would need a diagnostic test, such as chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or amniocentesis, to find out for sure if the baby actually has a problem.

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Why It Is Done

A nuchal translucency test is done to find out the chance that your developing baby (fetus) may be at risk for having Down syndrome or other problems.

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How To Prepare

You may need a full bladder for the nuchal translucency test. If so, you'll be asked to drink water or other liquids just before the test and to not urinate before the test.

How It Is Done

Most often, a nuchal translucency test is done by a specially trained ultrasound technologist. But it may be done by a radiologist or an obstetrician who has received special training to do this test.

Often you don't need to remove your clothes for the test, or you'll be given a gown to wear.

If you need a full bladder for the test, tell your doctor or ultrasound technologist if your bladder is so full that you're in pain.

For an abdominal ultrasound:

  • You'll lie down on your back or on your side on an exam table.
  • A gel will be spread on your belly.
  • A small, handheld device called a transducer will be pressed against the gel on your skin and moved over your belly. Images of the baby are displayed on a monitor. The technologist or doctor will look for and measure the thickness of the fluid buildup at the back of the baby's neck.

When the test is done, the gel is wiped off your skin. You can urinate as soon as the test is done.

For a transvaginal ultrasound, a small transducer will be inserted into your vagina.

How long the test takes

The test usually takes about 15 to 20 minutes.

How It Feels

During a nuchal translucency test, you may have a feeling of pressure in your bladder.

For an abdominal ultrasound, the gel may feel cool when it is first put on your belly. You'll feel a light pressure from the transducer as it passes over your belly.

For a transvaginal ultrasound, you may feel some pressure when the transducer is in your vagina.

Risks

There are no known risks linked with a nuchal translucency test, either to you or the baby. But you may feel anxious if the test shows that there's an increased chance that your baby may have a problem.

Ultrasound is a safe way to check for problems and get information about your developing baby. It doesn't use X-rays or other types of radiation that may harm the baby.

Results

Your doctor will look at the results of the nuchal translucency test to see if the area at the back of the baby's neck is thicker than normal.

You may not receive information about the test right away. Full results are usually ready in 1 or 2 days.

How accurate is the test?

The test can find out if your developing baby (fetus) is at higher-than-normal risk for problems. But it can't tell for sure that the baby has a problem. You would need another test, called a diagnostic test, to make sure.

The accuracy of this test is based on how often the test correctly finds a problem. For example:

  • The nuchal translucency test correctly finds Down syndrome in 64 to 70 out of 100 fetuses who have it. It misses Down syndrome in 30 to 36 out of 100 fetuses.footnote 1

It's possible that a screening test will show that the baby has an increased chance of having a problem when he or she doesn't have the problem. This is called a false-positive test result. And it's also possible that a screening may show that the baby doesn't have a problem when he or she does. This is called a false-negative test result.

References

Citations

  1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2016). Screening for fetal aneuploidy. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 163. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 127(5): e123–e137. DOI: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000001406. Accessed April 6, 2017.

Credits

Current as of: June 16, 2021

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Sarah Marshall MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Siobhan M. Dolan MD, MPH - Reproductive Genetics

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