How Often Should You Check Your…?
You probably know how often you can go between manicures, hair cuts, and bikini waxes, but it’s harder to remember when you’re due for certain health screenings. Plus, it seems like the suggested guidelines for common medical check-ups are constantly up for debate. Case in point: A recent study found that getting your blood pressure checked at every doctor’s visit may result in an inaccurate diagnosis for hypertension—not to mention unnecessary stress.
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic looked at records for 68 patients with hypertension and 372 patients without high blood pressure. When they looked at the readings from every single appointment, they identified all 68 cases of hypertension, along with 110 mistaken diagnoses for people without high blood pressure. But when they just took one annual reading, the doctors still caught all but five cases of hypertension—and they cut the number of false positives by almost 50 percent.
So should you turn down the test the next time you see your doc? Not necessarily. After all, it’s a free, quick, and painless part of your check-up, says Donnica Moore, MD, author of Women’s Health For Life. That said, she stresses that guidelines should never be set in stone and that you and your doctor can make the best decision about scheduling certain tests more or less frequently than recommended. “That will be based on the guidelines, but also on your personal medical history, family history, and lifestyle and behavior choices,” says Moore.
Need a refresher course on your recommended screenings? Check out our fool-proof guide to help you remember what needs to be checked and when:
Once a Month Breast self-exam: Check your girls for unusual lumps or bumps monthly so you can stay on top of any changes, says Moore. The best time to do it is a few days after your period ends.
Skin self-exam: The Skin Cancer Foundation strongly recommends that you check out your body once a month for any new or unusual spots or marks. Just remember your ABCDEs: asymmetry, border irregularity, uneven color, diameter bigger than 6 mm, and evolving shape and size.
Every Six Months Dental check-up: Make sure to hit up the dentist’s chair twice a year for cleanings and other preventative maintenance, but you should only get dental X-rays on an as needed basis to prevent unnecessary exposure to radiation, according to the American Dental Association’s recommendations.
Once a Year Full physical exam: This annual check-up should include a height and weight check, a blood pressure screening, a clinical breast exam, and any blood tests your doctor deems necessary, says Moore. These may include tests for blood sugar, blood count, hormone levels, and other crucial markers.
Pap smear: If you’ve had three consecutive normal pap smears, are in a mutually monogamous relationship, and have no other risk factors, you could technically go three years between screenings, says Moore. However, most doctors still suggest women see their gynecologist once a year and get a pap smear while they’re there. Your pap tests for any changes or abnormalities in the cells in your cervix, which is a way to screen for cervical cancer, says Alyssa Dweck, MD, co-author of V is For Vagina. For women 21-29, any mild irregularities in the pap test will prompt an HPV test to check for the high-risk strains of the HPV virus, says Dweck. Other than that, you probably won’t get an HPV test until you’re 30. (See below for more info on HPV testing)
Pelvic exam: Even if you aren’t getting an annual pap smear, it’s important to visit your OB/GYN annually for a routine pelvic exam, where she’ll feel around for your uterus and ovaries, says Dweck. This is a way to check for fibroids, cysts or any pain or swelling that might indicate an infection.
HIV tests: Get tested annually at your doctor’s office or a health clinic, says Dweck. The most accurate screening is a still a blood test, though you may get a mouth swab in some cases.
Other STD tests: It’s recommended that sexually active women get tested for Chlamydia and Gonorrhea annually until age 25, says Dweck. These can be run off your pap or with a separate swab of your cervix. After age 25, it’s still recommended that you get tested regularly for the range of STDs—including hepatitis b and c, syphilis, and the lesser-known trichomoniasis—based on your own risk factors, which you should discuss with your doctor. Of course, it’s also a smart idea to get tested before you have a new sexual partner or if you have any usual symptoms.
Eye exams: The American Optometric Association recommends eye exams at least once every two years, though annual exams are suggested for anyone with current vision problems (if you wear glasses or contacts, that includes you).
Every Other Year Skin cancer screening: Skin cancer is a huge issue for women in their twenties, so see your dermatologist before your biennial appointment if you notice any suspicious marks, says Moore.
Slightly Less Often HPV test: At age 30, women should start getting an HPV test with their pap every five years, says Dweck. Luckily, it’s relatively quick and painless since the test uses the same cervical swab as your pap. Prior to age 30, you should not be getting tested regularly for HPV unless you have an abnormal pap, since strains of the disease are so common in younger woman and they typically go away on their own, says Dweck.
Cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood count: Your doctor will want to check these at least once in your twenties and once in your thirties, though some physicians give a guideline of testing them once every five years, says Moore.
Thyroid test: Starting at age 35, it’s recommended that you check your thyroid levels via a blood test and have them re-tested ever five years after that, says Moore.
Down the Road* Colonoscopy: This test should come right around your 50th birthday, unless your family history warrants an earlier screening, says Moore. If you have a first-degree relative with colon cancer, it’s recommended that you start your screening 10 years before their age at diagnosis.
Diabetes screening: Routine diabetes screenings (which involve a blood sugar test) start at age 50 and should be done once every three years, says Dweck.
Mammograms: At 40, you’ll want to start scheduling annual mammograms, though your doctor may recommended screening earlier if you have a family history, says Dweck.
*For women in their 20s and 30s
Only As Needed Don’t be shocked if your doctor orders a blood test outside of these general guidelines, since many health checks are done on an as-needed basis. Things like your hormone levels, blood sugar, vitamin D levels, and iron deficiencies can all be seen in a blood test and may be ordered if you come in with certain symptoms, says Dweck.