Your Guide to Women’s Health Screenings

You may visit your primary care physician on a regular basis, but do you really know what screenings you need to stay healthy and when to get them?

In today’s world, where preventable diseases kill thousands of Americans every day, we’re beginning to see just how important preventive healthcare can be. For women especially, health screenings can be the key to either preventing a life-threatening disease or catching it while it’s still easily treatable.

You may visit your primary care physician on a regular basis, but do you really know what screenings you need to stay healthy and when to get them? We spoke with Dr. Katherine Sherif, an internal medicine physician and Chief of Women’s Health at Jefferson University Hospital, about the preventive care that a woman needs throughout her life.

Prevention Starts Early

Yearly health checks with your primary care physician and gynecologist are essential in preventing disease. They will help assess your overall health and point you in the direction of specific solutions for any concerns you may have. Dental exams are also important to start at a young age, at least yearly, because the bacteria in the mouth can play a big role in overall health.

Physician looking at the mammogram of a patient

One of the most important health screenings that starts early in a woman’s life is for cervical cancer. Starting at age 21, every woman should have a pap smear every three years. At age 30, women should get a pap smear with human papillomavirus (HPV) testing every five years up to age 65.

“We rarely have the chance to prevent cancer, so the pap smear has been one of the most important public health initiatives in history,” Dr. Sherif tells us. By their 20s, most sexually active American women have been exposed to HPV. Cervical cancer was once one of the leading causes of death among women in the United States. But in the past 40 years, the number of cases and deaths from cervical cancer has significantly dropped because of the rise of the pap smear as a common screening tool.

Screenings Throughout Life

Breast cancer screenings are essential in preventing the second leading cause of cancer deaths. Mammograms usually start around age 40 and are critical in detecting cancer while it still has a high chance of responding well to treatment. Some physicians may choose to give low-risk patients mammograms starting at age 45 or 50, but most women can stop getting these screenings around age 80.

Another important screening to get as you get older is for colorectal cancer. This should start at age 45 if you have an average risk, but earlier if you have a family history of colorectal cancer. A screening should be given every 10 years, but can be supplemented by Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) cards, which detect blood in the stool, every year.

Self-Checks

Besides screenings done by a physician, you should be sure to keep an eye on your own body and take note of any abnormal changes or symptoms. If you have irregular intervals of menstrual bleeding, menstrual bleeding after menopause, bleeding gums, blood in your urine, or vaginal bleeding after intercourse, you should contact your physician for an exam.

There are some self-health checks that you can do at home, such as self-exams for breast cancer. You can also perform a skin exam at any age, making sure to note any changes in moles and paying attention to areas that are not easily seen, like between your toes. If you notice a lump in your breast or a changing mole, schedule an appointment with your doctor to get an official screening.

Overall, it’s important to communicate with your physician regularly about your health. Dr. Sherif advises, “Doctors are here to help you. If you think something feels off, you should check with your doctor first to rule out anything serious and make a plan for how to treat your symptoms.”

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