Our bodies develop and change in many stages. We go through puberty, childbearing years, menopause, and many smaller stages along the way. It’s important for women to get regular medical checkups and screenings to stay healthy and spot signs of serious diseases and conditions early, when it is easiest treat them effectively.The Difference Between Checkups and Screenings
Medical checkups and screenings are two different things.
- Checkups (also called physical or well checks) are visits with doctors to ensure that you are healthy and receiving necessary medications and treatments. During a checkup, a doctor will examine your body and talk with you about your health, symptoms you are experiencing, medications you are taking, and your lifestyle habits, such as exercise and eating.
- Screenings are medical tests that identify diseases or conditions before you experience symptoms. Screenings include blood pressure tests, mammograms, blood tests, and colonoscopies. Depending on the type of screening, your doctor may provide it at his or her office, or ask you to get screenings at a specialty clinic or hospital.
Common Screenings and Checkups
What checkups and screening tests you need and when depend on your age, health, and personal risk for certain conditions:
1. Physical / well check
- What it is: Physicals are visits with your doctor to ensure that you are healthy and receiving necessary medications and treatments. Your doctor will also give you any immunizations that you might need, such as shots to prevent influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), varicella (chickenpox), and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). Click here for the recommended adult immunization schedule in the United States.
- When you should have it: In general, you should visit a primary care doctor, such as a family medicine doctor or internist, once a year your entire adult life for a general health check.
- What it is: A mammogram is an X-ray of your breasts. It is used to find signs of breast cancer, the second leading cause of cancer-related death of women in the United States (lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women).
- When you should have it: Some guidelines suggest you start getting mammograms when you turn 50, but many organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the National Cancer Institute, recommend you start getting a mammogram every year, or every other year, starting at age 40.
3. Pelvic Exam and PapTest
- What it is: A pelvic exam is an examination of your female reproductive organs to check for infections, cancer, and other conditions. During a pelvic exam, your doctor will look at your external organs, including your labia and rectum, as well as your internal organs, including the inside of your vagina and your cervix (the opening to your uterus). A Pap test is a common screening done during a pelvic exam to help detect cervical cancer. This involves sweeping the surface of your cervix with a small brush to get a sample of cervical cells for testing.
- When you should have it: ACOG recommends a pelvic exam once a year starting at age 21. ACOG and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend a Pap test every three years between the ages of 21 and 29; between 30 and 65, a Pap test every three years, or every five years if your doctor combines the Pap test with a test for human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer. Ask your Ob/Gyn or primary care provider how often you should have a Pap test.
4. STD Screening
- What it is: STD screening tests look for evidence of infections that you have contracted through sexual contact. STD tests often involve a small blood draw or a swab of your vaginal fluids.
- When you should have it: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has the following guidelines: Nonpregnant, sexually active women younger than 25 should be screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Younger women have an increased risk of these infections compared to older women. Nonpregnant, sexually active women who engage in high-risk sexual practices, such as multiple sexual partners, varied condom use, and sexual activity while taking drugs or drinking alcohol, should be screened for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis. Pregnant women should be screened for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, and syphilis. Pregnant women younger than 25 and pregnant women engaging in high-risk sexual behavior should be also be screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea. The most common practice is yearly screening of chlamydia in women younger than 25. For other STDs, how often you are tested is largely up to your clinician and your individual circumstances and risk factors.