By Jenilee Matz, MPH
Most people only visit the doctor when something doesn’t feel right. But doctor visits are just as crucial when you feel great. That’s right — regular check-ups and screening tests help to ensure that any possible problems or diseases are caught early, when illnesses can often be treated more effectively and in a less invasive manner.
During each decade of life, your doctor will let you know which screenings tests you should be getting. Certain tests (like cholesterol and blood pressure checks) will need to be started while you’re relatively young and be repeated every couple of years or sooner, while others (such as a bone density test) aren’t necessary until you’re older, or, as in the case of colonoscopies, may only be done every 10 years or so.
Take control of your health by learning what screening tests are important — and when you should get them. Here are the essential screening tests every woman needs.
You probably feel like nothing can affect your health at this age. But as you become sexually active and as your mind and body continue to grow and change, there are health precautions to take — including getting a few screening tests.
Why you need it: Women suffer from depression at twice the rate that men do, a shift that takes place after puberty. In fact, some estimates suggest that a quarter of women will deal with depression at some point in their lives. Depression is a serious and potentially lethal illness: An estimated 15 percent of persons with depression commit suicide. Depression will not typically go away on its own, but with treatment (including non-medication interventions like exercise and talk therapy), it can be effectively managed.
What the test is like: During a regular check-up, your doctor will likely ask you how you are feeling. Questions such as, “Over the past two weeks, have you felt down, depressed or hopeless?” or “Over the past two weeks, have you felt little interest or pleasure in doing things?” are effective as an initial screening for depression.
If you’re diagnosed with depression, it’s important to follow the treatment plan recommended, including attending talk therapy sessions, taking any medications as prescribed and seeing your doctor for follow-up appointments.
When to start: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends screening for depression as early as age 12. If you or your child shows symptoms of depression, these guidelines don’t apply — seek help right away.
Why you need it: HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, and is responsible for nearly all of the 12,000 new cervical cancer diagnoses in the U.S. each year.
Not everyone who contracts HPV will develop cervical cancer; in most cases, HPV does not show any symptoms or cause any long term health complications, and the body naturally rids itself of the virus within two years. However, experts still recommend that young adults be vaccinated against HPV.
What it’s like: There are two vaccines available to protect against HPV — Cervarix® and Gardasil®. Both protect against the two types of HPV that are mostly likely to cause cervical cancer; Gardasil® also protects against the two strains of HPV that cause genital warts. Both vaccines are administered in a three-dose (shot) series over a six-month period.
When to start: The vaccines are most effective when they’re administered before a person is sexually active, and experts recommend teens be vaccinated by age 13 or 14. However, the vaccination is safe for all sexually active people under 26 years of age.
Why you need it: Nearly half of the 19 million people diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (STD, also called sexually transmitted infection, or STI) each year in the U.S. are between the ages of 15 and 24.
The only way to know for sure if you’ve contracted an STD is to get tested for one; many STDs are asymptomatic. If an STD does have symptoms, they can take weeks or months to appear, or they may be confused with another health issue, like a yeast infection. Sometimes, STD symptoms go away on their own — but the virus or bacteria that caused the infection may still be present. Untreated STDs can cause long-term health complications, such as infertility.
What the test is like: A urine or a vaginal swab specimen is used to test for chlamydia and gonorrhea; a cervical swab sample is used to test for HPV. A blood test checks for HIV, herpes (HSV) and syphilis; and your doctor will also do a physical inspection to look for signs such as discharge. Testing for viral hepatitis usually isn’t necessary unless you are at high risk.
When to start: Request an STD test from your doctor if you’ve had more than one sex partner, if there’s any doubt about your partner’s sexual history, or you have a rash, discomfort or discharge. How often you should be tested depends on your personal risk factors — but an annual test is usually sufficient for most people. Your doctor can help you determine what screening tests and schedule are appropriate for you.
Why you need it: If you have high blood pressure, you probably won’t know it until you get checked. High blood pressure is nothing to ignore: it can lead to serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke and kidney failure. Hypertension typically develops over many years, meaning it’s completely possible to spot it early and work with your doctor to prevent it.
How the test works: Blood pressure is expressed as two numbers. The first number (systolic) is the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats and the second (diastolic) is the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart is at rest between beats. A normal blood pressure reading is 120/70 and lower. A systolic reading between 120 and 139 paired with a diastolic reading between 80 and 89 indicates you’re at risk for high blood pressure, and a reading of 140/90 and above indicates high blood pressure.
When to start: You should start having your blood pressure checked at age 18; it’s usually included in your physical examination. Your doctor can let you know if between-physical checks are needed.