Women's Health

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Lifesaving Health Tests for Women

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In Your 20s:

 

With your focus on your career, relationships and having fun, your health may take the backseat. But there are some essential tests to start now. And if you’re pregnant or plan on trying, schedule an appointment with your Ob/Gyn to get your health (and your baby’s health) on the right track!

 

Blood Sugar/Diabetes

Why you need it: Once thought to be something that happens only to adults, diabetes is becoming more common in children and young adults. Like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, high blood sugar often starts without symptoms. In fact, about 7 million Americans have undiagnosed diabetes. Diabetes that is not properly controlled can lead to problems with your heart, brain, eyes, feet, kidneys and nerves.

What the test is like: Your doctor will likely check your blood sugar levels with a fasting plasma glucose (FPG) test. The FPG test is a blood test that measures your blood glucose (blood sugar) after not eating for at least eight hours. 

When to start: USPSTF guidelines recommend screening for diabetes if your blood pressure is higher than 135/80 mmHg or if you take medication for high blood pressure. People without risk factors don’t need to be checked for diabetes until age 45, recommends the American Diabetes Association, although many doctors will test earlier. Some symptoms of elevated blood sugar can include feeling unusually thirsty, unintended weight loss, drinking and eating more than usual, and urinating more frequently. 

Learn how to stop diabetes before it starts.

 

Cholesterol

Why you need it: Your body needs some cholesterol to build healthy cells, but too much cholesterol can block the flow of blood through your arteries, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke.

What the test is like: Doctors use a blood test called a lipid panel to check your total cholesterol, LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, HDL (or “good”) cholesterol and triglyceride (a type of fat found in the bloodstream) levels.

When to start: Cholesterol screening is recommended for everyone ages 20 and older and should be repeated at least once every five years, especially if you smoke, are obese, have diabetes or high blood pressure, or have a family history of heart disease or blocked arteries. However, in an effort to curb childhood obesity, guidelines issued in November 2011 by a panel selected by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommends initial cholesterol testing for all children ages 9 to 11, with follow-up testing at 17 to 21 years of age. A cholesterol test is typically included in your regular physical examination. Many people choose to get this test at health fairs or pharmacies but fail to discuss the results with their physician because they are afraid the doctor will tell them to take medicine. It’s worth discussing with your doctor since non-pharmaceutical methods, such as diet and exercise, can be tried first.

 

Pap Smear

Why you need it: A Pap test (also called Pap smear) screens for changes in the cells of your cervix that could indicate cervical cancer. Screening for cervical cancer is key; if the disease is detected early, it’s one of the most treatable forms of cancer.

What the test is like: During your pelvic exam, your gynecologist will take a swab of cervical cells to be sent to a lab for examination. The procedure is quick and is usually painless but can cause some cramping like a period.

When to start: All women should start getting screened at age 21 regardless of sexual activity, and then be tested every three years provided their Pap tests are normal. Sexually active women younger than 21 should get screened as well. Between the ages of 30 and 65, some women can go five years between testing, if they get both a Pap test and a test for the HPV virus every five years.

But remember — just because you may not need a Pap test every year doesn’t mean you can skip your annual gynecological exam. A Pap test doesn’t screen for STDS, ovarian cancer or other vaginal cancers.

Read about the new cervical cancer screening guidelines.

 

Skin Cancer

Why you need it: Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. In 2007, more than 58,000 people were diagnosed with melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, and more than 8,000 people died from it, according to the CDC. However, if it’s caught early, skin cancer can be easy to treat and is rarely fatal.

What the test is like: During a screening, your doctor will examine your skin for any suspicious moles, and will look at your scalp, back, between your toes, even the tops of your ears — places you’re less likely to check on your own.

When to start: The American Cancer Society recommends that every woman should have her first skin cancer screening starting at age 20. The frequency of exams preformed by your doctor after the initial screening varies from person to person. If you’ve had previous skin cancers or are at a higher risk (like fair-skinned women who have a family history of the disease), your doctor may suggest you get checked more often. To be thorough, all women should also do a self-check on their skin on a monthly basis, according to the National Cancer Institute. 

Learn about skin cancer, including how to spot a possibly problematic mole.


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