Health Screenings Every Woman Should Know About

Cancer and other diseases can be detected early with regular health screenings

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Staying healthy requires being proactive about your health by scheduling and attending necessary health screenings. There are some screenings in particular that every woman should know about.

Health screenings test for diseases or conditions that you may have. In many cases, early diagnosis and early treatment can improve symptoms, slow illness progression, and sometimes lead to a cure.

Healthcare practitioners and health organizations recommend certain screenings specifically for women. Your physician can help you determine which health screenings are right for you.

Here are several health screenings that every woman should discuss with her doctor.

Cervical Cancer Screening

Usually, cervical cancer screenings, also known as Pap tests or Pap smears, take place during an annual well woman exam. During a Pap smear, your healthcare practitioner will take a sample of cells from your cervix and examine them for any abnormalities. Abnormal cells could be signs of infection with HPV (human papillomavirus), a virus that can lead to cervical cancer. Abnormal results are not usually cause for immediate concern, but your healthcare practitioner may want to take more samples to ensure that you are not developing potentially cancerous lesions.

The Office on Women's Health recommends that women with cervixes schedule a Pap smear every three to five years.

Breast Cancer Screenings

There are three main types of breast cancer screenings: clinical breast exams, self-exams and mammograms. The American Cancer Society recommends that women receive clinical breast exams at least every three years in their 20s and 30s and once a year after they turn 40. The organization also recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 40, and the Office on Woman's Health recommends mammograms every two years starting at age 50. Your healthcare practitioner may recommend a different screening schedule based on your family history of breast cancer and any other risk factors that apply to you.

Clinical breast exams and breast self-exams consists of manually feeling the breast for any abnormal lumps. Because breast tissue may swell at different points during the menstrual cycle, self-exams should be conducted during the same time each month after your period ends.

Mammograms use radiography imaging to identify breast lumps that may be tumors, usually in older women. Several studies have found that mammograms may lead to false positives (results that show cancer when there actually is no cancer), so it is important to determine with your physician if and when you need a mammogram.

Colorectal Cancer Screenings

Physicians usually begin colorectal health screenings around age 50, although your doctor may begin screenings early if you have a family history of colorectal cancer.

Colonoscopies and sigmoidoscopies are procedures using imaging devices that examine parts of the bowel. A colonoscopy can examine the entire colon and remove polyps, while a sigmoidoscopy can only examine part of the colon. Your doctor will help you determine which procedure is right for you and how often you should receive them.

A fecal occult blood test looks for blood in feces that may be an sign of bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. Your doctor may recommend this test every year if you are over 50 years old. Lastly, your doctor may perform rectal exams periodically to look for any rectum abnormalities.

Bone Mineral Density Test

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women 65 years of age and older receive bone mineral density tests to screen for osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by porous bones that commonly affects older women and can increase the risk of breaking bones.

The most common tests for bone mineral density involve X-rays or ultrasounds of breakage-prone areas like the hips, spine and heels.

Cardiovascular Screenings

The Office on Women's Health recommends that women receive blood pressure tests at least every two years throughout their adult lives. Your primary care physician may take your blood pressure at the beginning of every scheduled visit. If your blood pressure is between 120/80 and 139/89, the Office of Women's Health recommends that you get your blood pressure checked every year. If your blood pressure is over 140/90, your doctor may recommend more frequent blood pressure tests.

"When it comes to heart health, the initial screenings are inexpensive, but can be life saving," said cardiologist Sarah A. Samaan, MD, FACC. "Since high blood pressure is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke, the sooner it is caught, the sooner it can be successfully treated and complications can be avoided. High blood pressure affects one in every three adults. It often causes no symptoms, so it's easy to be oblivious to this problem. That's why it's often called 'the silent killer.' "

Dr. Samaan added, "A diet that limits salt and is rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean protein can help to reverse high blood pressure in its early stages. Regular exercise and weight loss, if needed, can drop blood pressure 5 to 10 points or more."

If you have an increased risk of heart disease, you should ask your doctor about getting your cholesterol levels tested regularly. Cholesterol is tested by taking a small blood sample. Detecting high cholesterol is a critical first step in preventing or diagnosing heart disease.

Diabetes Screening

The Office of Women's Health suggests that women with blood pressure higher than 135/80 should be tested for diabetes. Additionally, you may want to be screened for diabetes if you have a family history of diabetes or if you are overweight. Your physician will use a blood test to measure your body's ability to control your blood sugar.

Healthy habits entail more than proper nutrition and regular exercise. These screenings will help you identify and treat any potential health issues you may develop throughout your lifetime.

Review Date: 
April 29, 2014