What is genetic counseling?
Genetic counseling gives you information about how genetic conditions may affect you or your family. A genetic counseling session may be for you or a member of your family. You might see a genetic counselor while you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy.
Genetic counselors study science and genetics in college and then get a master’s degree in genetic counseling. They can provide support to you and your family if you or your child has a genetic condition. They also provide support if you may be at risk of developing a genetic condition or passing one on. A genetic counselor will look at your medical and family history. They may recommend genetic testing to learn more about your genetic condition or genetic risk.
When is genetic counseling recommended?
Your healthcare provider may recommend genetic counseling for various reasons. You may want to learn more about your chances of developing a genetic condition. Or you may be interested in your risk of passing on a condition to your child.
You may want to get genetic counseling to learn more about your risk for developing certain diseases. In breast cancer, for example, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene changes (mutations) increase your likelihood for getting cancer. Genetic counseling may also be useful if you’re in an ethnic group that has a high risk of developing a certain condition. For instance, Ashkenazi Jews are more likely to develop Tay-Sachs disease. Genetic counselors can help you decide if you should be tested for genetic changes that are associated with these diseases — and many others.
You may want to get genetic counseling during your pregnancy. If you or your partner have people in your family who know that they have a genetic condition, you may want to learn whether you have a risk of passing it down to your child.
There are a lot of different health conditions that your genetic counselor can talk to you about, including:
- Conditions such as sickle cell disease.
- Birth defects such as heart defects or cleft lips and palates.
Prenatal genetic counseling can also help you if:
- You’ve had problems with infertility or two or more pregnancy losses (miscarriages).
- You’ve had a stillbirth or a baby who died.
- You’re related by blood to someone you plan to have children with.
- You’ve already had a child with a genetic condition or birth defect.
- You’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant after age 35.
Your baby’s health
If you’ve had ultrasounds or prenatal tests that show a potential problem, you may want to consider genetic counseling before your baby is born.
If your baby is born with a genetic condition or birth defect, your healthcare provider may recommend genetic counseling.
If your baby’s newborn screening test shows they have a risk of developing a genetic condition, you may want genetic counseling.
Why is genetic counseling important?
A genetic counselor can help you understand your risk for developing a genetic condition or having a child with a genetic condition. They can evaluate your risk by looking at your medical history and your family history.
A genetic counselor can tell you which DNA tests (genetic tests) can give you the information you need. They can also explain how DNA tests work. This includes what conditions the tests can and can’t detect, and how well the tests work.
Your genetic counselor is trained to help you decide whether genetic testing will be helpful for you. They’ll talk to you about undergoing genetic testing, and how it may affect your emotional and mental health. They’ll work to support you and your family in making the best decisions for your health.
Genetic counselors can inform you of the cost of genetic tests and whether your insurance will cover them.
If you receive a positive test result, a genetic counselor can tell you what it means and help you figure out next steps. They can also help you to tell your family about your condition.
What happens during genetic counseling?
Your genetic counseling session will start by looking over your medical history and your family history. Your genetic counselor will use this information to see how your history may affect you or your children.
Your genetic counselor will map out your family tree, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — and maybe more. Your family tree will include which family members were diagnosed with certain conditions. It will also include how old they were at the time of their diagnosis, and whether they’re still living.
Based on your medical history, your genetic counselor may use an assessment tool that can help determine your risk for developing certain conditions.
Your genetic counselor will discuss the benefits and risks of genetic testing. They’ll discuss which genetic test would meet your needs. They’ll also go over the laws that protect your genetic information privacy. If you decide to get genetic testing, your genetic counselor will set up testing appointments.
What happens after genetic counseling?
After your session, your genetic counselor will give you your risk assessment information. They’ll also provide you with information on specific DNA testing options.
If you have the suggested genetic testing done, your genetic counselor will help you understand your test results. They’ll tell you what they mean, including your risk for developing a certain condition. They’ll give you a copy of the test results along with a summary of what the test results mean.
Your genetic counselor can help you make decisions about your future health plans. This may include further testing or potential treatment options. They may refer you to a specialist or to a specific support group that focuses on your condition or situation.
Your genetic counselor will be a caring, constant resource for you and your family if you have a genetic health concern.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Genetic counseling can help you learn about your risk for developing or passing on a genetic condition. Genetic counselors will provide you important information about how your genes may affect your health. They’ll explain your genetic testing options and how DNA tests work. Genetic counselors can offer support and guide you to make the right decision for you and your family.
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