Your family health history

Family health history is a record of any health problems and treatments that you, your partner and everyone in both of your families have had.

Learning about your family health history can help you make important health choices in your life. It also can help you learn about the health of your baby even before he’s born!

Your family health history can give you clues that help you know more about family traits (like height and hair color) that are passed down. It also can help you and your provider know what to look out for, like illnesses or other health problems that may run in your family.

Your family health history also can include common family lifestyle choices, like smoking or drinking alcohol

How do you begin learning about your family health history?

You can start getting your family health history together anytime. A good time to start is as you begin planning your family

A family health history form (.PDF, 424KB) can be a helpful tool for you and your partner to gather information.

Send a copy to other family members related to you by blood. Have them add as much information as they can about their health and the health of their parents, grandparents and other family. Try to get a form from everyone in your family and your partner’s family. A good time to ask for this information is at family gatherings.

Keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable talking about health history. Go easy and don’t be upset if people don’t want to share. Try a one-on-one conversation with those who may not want to fill out the form.

How do you find information on family members that are no longer living?

If you have trouble finding information from family members who lived before you, you can:

  • Get death certificates from state health departments. They usually cost under $10 and generally have information on the family member’s age and how he died.
  • Seek medical records from health providers who cared for the family member or the hospital where he died.
  • Keep copies of health checkups, hospital forms, tests results and other health records you find.

You may be worried about what you may find out about your family’s health. Keep in mind that learning about health problems can help you and your family members live healthier lives.

You may be able to get treatment for and even prevent some health problems. So knowing about them is a good thing. It can help you live a healthy life. No matter what you find, the information you learn can be helpful to you, your children and generations to come.

How can you use your family health history?

You can use your family health history to make choices in your health care. If you’re thinking about getting pregnant, you can tell your provider about any health problems that run in your family at your preconception visit or your first prenatal care checkup

For example, if your family has a history of diabetes, you may want to watch your weight and eat healthy foods. Your provider can help you stay healthy so that you can have a healthy baby.

Keep learning about your family health history. As you find out more, add information to your questionnaire and other records.

If you learn that your family has a health problem that gets passed down from parent to child, you may want to see a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor is a provider with special medical training who knows how genes work and how they can carry health problems from parents to babies.

You can share the information you learned with your genetic counselor to find out the chances of your baby getting family health problems or other family traits.

Who else knows about your health information?

If you’re trying to get pregnant, your health care provider may have you answer health questions to find out about your family health history. She may have you answer these questions using a paper form or a computer while you’re in the waiting room.

It can be hard sharing such personal information, like if your parents are still alive and if they’re healthy. Know that the answers you give help you and your provider give you and your baby the best care.

All of the health information you share is private and safe. It doesn’t matter if the information comes from your prenatal tests, is written down in a paper form, gets added into a computer or is shared during a talk you have with your provider. Only your health care team knows your health information.

So, don’t be afraid to give honest answers or share your concerns with your provider. She can’t tell anyone else what you say without your permission. 

For more information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
CDC Show Your Love Campaign
Maternal & Child Health Library
U.S. Surgeon General’s Office
Genetic Alliance

Last reviewed May 2011

See also: A family health history form (.PDF, 424KB), Chinese family health history brochure (PDF, 382KB), Importance of family health history in the African-American community (PDF, 988KB)

Most common questions

Genetic counseling

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.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).