Must-Have Medical Tests and Screenings for Women

Women's Health Screening Tests

Instrument and speculum for a pap smear
GARO/PHANIE / Getty Images

Do you know that as women, we all need to have certain medical tests and health screenings throughout our lives? For example, did you know that vision and hearing screenings are recommended during every decade of your life? Learn why we need these and other health screenings.

Pap Test

The Pap test, or a Pap smear, is important for all women age 21 and above. Sexually active young women under 21 also need Pap tests starting within three years of the first time sexual intercourse happened. The Pap test, originally developed by Dr. George Papanicolaou in the 1950s, detects abnormal changes in cervical cells that may led to cervical cancer if not detected by annual Pap smears.

Prior to the introduction of the Pap test, cervical cancer was the leading cause of cancer death in women. Thanks to Dr. Papanicolaou's research and his hard work developing the Pap smear, cervical cancer is now 15th among causes of cancer deaths in women, with about 3,700 women dying of cervical cancer each year.

Mammograms

The recommendations for when to begin annual mammography vary among health professionals. Some groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommend mammography screening beginning at age 40, while other professional groups, including the American College of Physicians, American Academy of Family Physicians, US Preventative Services at Task Force, and Canadian Task Force on Periodic Health Examination, recommend yearly screening beginning at age 50. These differences are due to the fact that the groups who recommend mammograms beginning at age 50 believe the risks of radiation exposure may outweigh the benefits of screenings beginning at an earlier age.

Younger women at high risk for developing breast cancer also need annual mammograms as ordered by their physicians. Mammograms are safe, relatively painless, and necessary for the early detection of breast cancer. When found early, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is up to 96%, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

Bone Density Test

Bone density testing is a simple and painless procedure. Testing for bone loss is necessary for all women over age 65, as well as for younger women with at least one known risk factor, as well as for all women who have had a hysterectomy. Osteoporosis, in most cases, causes substantial bone loss and the development of bone tissue deterioration. This disease, if not found and treated early, leads to fragile bones that break easily. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, over 1.5 million women and men over age 50 experience osteoporosis-related fractures annually. Fortunately, early diagnosis of osteoporosis by bone density testing enables treatment with medications that stop progression of the disease and can reverse some of the bone loss that occurred prior to diagnosis.

Blood Pressure Check

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, affects at least 50 million people, or one of every five people, in the United States. Hypertension occurs when blood pressure readings repeatedly rise above 140/90.

On the other hand, blood pressure can also be too low. When this occurs, patients experience low blood pressure, called hypotension. Hypotension occurs when blood pressure readings are significantly lower than normal for the patient. The primary symptoms of hypotension include dizziness, feeling light-headed, and headaches. People taking medicine for high blood pressure who start having these symptoms should check with their health care provider to determine whether the prescribed blood pressure medication has worked too well or if a medication change is necessary.

The top number in a blood pressure reading, called the systolic pressure, is the amount of force or pressure exerted against the arteries during each heartbeat, while the lower, or diastolic, number represents the amount of pressure in the arteries between heartbeats.

All adults should be screened for hypertension and hypotension. Be sure to visit your doctor to check your blood pressure at least annually.

STD Tests

Whenever you think exposure to a sexually transmitted disease (STD) has occurred, contact your health care provider immediately for testing. The presence of any type of unusual vaginal discharge should be an alert to see your doctor as well. Having abnormal vaginal discharge does not mean that an STD is present; however, vaginal discharge usually indicates the presence of either an STD or a vaginal infection. Be sure to get anything unusual checked out without delay.

Routine HIV Testing

According to CDC guidelines, everyone who sees a doctor or who is a patient in an emergency room should receive HIV testing on a routine basis. The CDC believes routine HIV testing will result in a 30% decline in the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

More: Aids in Women

Cholesterol Screening

The cholesterol test helps predict individual risks for the development of heart disease. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends routine cholesterol tests at least every five years for adults beginning at age 20. For women, your doctor may suggest testing more frequently when you reach age 45. Other tests, including HDL and LDL cholesterol and triglycerides—together called a lipid profile—are usually performed at the time of cholesterol testing. Pregnancy often causes higher-than-normal cholesterol numbers. When patients are taking prescription medications to lower cholesterol, testing occurs more often to see how well the patient is responding to treatment.

Colorectal Cancer Tests

Regular screening for colon cancer, such as colonoscopies, should begin in patients during their late forties to early fifties. Colonoscopy should begin, for most patients, at age 50 and should take place every 10 years following. Patients with known risk factors should follow their health care provider’s advice for when to start having this test. The American Cancer Society, as well as other health organizations, recommends the routine performance of a test called a fecal occult blood test for adults every year after age 50.

Early diagnosis of colon cancer significantly increases the five-year survival rate from this tragic disease to more than 90%; however, early colorectal cancer diagnosis occurs only 39% of the time. Having these tests at the recommended intervals, or as directed by your health care provider, is the best way to catch colorectal cancer while it is still in its early stages.

Skin Cancer Screening

Diagnosis of skin cancer occurs more times per year in the United States than any other type of cancer. Although lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths, skin cancer occurs significantly more often, which makes it the number one cancer diagnosis in the United States. The good news is that it’s not hard to determine whether a potential skin cancer lesion is present. Many cities around the United States offer free skin cancer screenings, usually in May, at local hospitals. Local dermatologists give up a Saturday to help discover possible skin cancers in anyone who shows up at the event. These free skin cancer screenings normally consist of undressing, putting on a hospital gown, and waiting for the doctor to come in the exam room to examine the skin over the entire body. This doesn’t usually take more than a few minutes and offers an opportunity to discuss any questions or concerns you might have about skin cancer.

Diabetes Screening

All adults should be screened for type 2 diabetes (adult-onset diabetes). This generally means receiving either a fasting glucose test or a glucose tolerance test every three years beginning at age 45. However, those with risk factors should be tested earlier and more frequently. Risk factors for adult-onset diabetes include:

  • Family history of either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes
  • Experiencing gestational diabetes during pregnancy
  • Having given birth to an infant who weighed over 9 pounds at birth
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Being part of a family with a culture history of African, Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Island descent
  • Getting little or no exercise

Vision Screening

Adults age 18 and older should have eye examinations every one or two years until age 61, when the American Optometric Association recommends that yearly vision screenings should begin. Adults with ongoing eye conditions should see their optometrist as often as their physician recommends. Additionally, patients who have risk factors for diabetes, such as high blood pressure or a family history of ocular diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration, as well as people who work in jobs that require acute vision, patients who wear contacts, those who take prescribed medications regularly or OTC medications that have vision-related side effects, and people who have other health conditions that affect the eyes may need more frequent vision screenings.

Hearing Test

Hearing loss is widespread and persistent among adults of all ages. In fact, while over 30% of people over 65 have a hearing loss, 14% of adults aged 45 to 64 also experience hearing loss, and over 8 million people between age 18 and 44 have some type of hearing loss. While hearing screening is voluntary, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends hearing screening for adults every 10 years for adults through the age of 50. At age 50, hearing tests should occur every three years.

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Article Sources
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  • Cervical Cancer Screening Pap Test; CDC; http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/basic_info/screening/.
  • Cholesterol - The Test; Lab Tests Online; http://www.labtestsonline.org/understanding/analytes/cholesterol/test.html.
  • Comprehensive Adult Eye and Vision Examination; National Guideline Clearinghouse and the American Optometric Association; http://www.guideline.gov/summary/summary.aspx?ss=15&doc_id=8464&nbr=4725.
  • Early Detection; The National Breast Cancer Foundation; http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/early_detection/index.html.
  • Hearing Loss in Adults; American Speech – Language – Hearing Association; http://www.asha.org/public/hearing/testing#adults.
  • High Blood Pressure; National Library of Medicine; http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/highbloodpressure.html.
  • National Osteoporosis Foundation; http://www.nof.org.
  • Screening for Type 2 Diabetes; Genetic Health; http://www.genetichealth.com/DBTS_Screening_for_Type_2_Diabetes.shtml.