Routine Exams and Screenings for Women: A Comprehensive Guide
When it comes to overall health for women, your routine preventative care is important. Keeping your body in the best condition possible, so you can stay strong and healthy can help prevent or curtail potential common complications that may arise throughout your lifetime. Routine health screenings help you and your doctors have the clearest possible picture of your health.
Historically, women are more likely than men to visit their doctors for routine screenings and physical exams, especially for sexual and reproductive health. In fact, it is recommended that women have two kinds of regular physical exams—a physical exam and a well-woman exam—starting relatively early. These exams conducted by your primary care provider can either reaffirm your good health status or reveal potential risks or diseases that need attention. Routine exams and screenings are the key to early detection, which is the best way to improve condition treatment and management down the road.
The first step toward preventative healthcare for women is the regular annual physical exam and the well-woman exam, a specific exam that assesses bodily areas potentially prone to complications, such as the genitals or breasts. It is recommended that younger women—once they reach 21 years of age—should be getting a well-woman exam annually.
The well-woman exam consists of:
- physical exam
- breast exam
- pelvic exam
- Pap smear test
In addition to screening for potential health conditions, the exam helps your doctor develop a clearer and more accurate picture of your overall health.
Physical exams: the first steps to preventative care
The reasons for visiting your primary care provider or a specialist for a routine physical exam change over time. During young adulthood, physical exams help confirm that you’re remaining healthy and making good choices for your body.
Aging can be both a blessing and a curse, we know. When you hit 35, the priorities shift slightly, and physical exams also start include screening for and detecting markers or signs of commonplace complications women may face as they age. One of the most vital screenings is a cervical cancer exam, which is recommended annually after 35.
So, what is your primary care provider or a specialist looking for during these exams? These change as you age, as well; however there are consistent metrics your doctor assesses, including:
- Blood pressure
- Height and weight
- Several commonly used lab tests (for more on these, keep reading
Furthermore, it is recommended that every woman also have their vision and skin checked either by their primary care provider during a routine physical exam or by a specialist—such as an optometrist or dermatologist.
These metrics help paint a consistent, overall picture of your health and help your doctor keep track of your body’s development as you age. Your doctor will likely ask you questions about lifestyle changes as well, especially those that may impact mental and psychological health. It is important to talk about any changes in your life with your doctor, so they can provide the most accurate care.
Your physical exam will start to include regular screenings for complications as you age. And they may start earlier than you might think.
Routine screenings—especially bloodwork—enable preventative care
When you’re younger, your doctor may speak to you about routine screenings based on your health as you age. Age-based screenings are an important piece to the puzzle of overall health. And they begin fairly early during young adulthood.
Overall health begins with your blood. It is perhaps the most essential substance in your body and is responsible for ferrying live-sustaining oxygen everywhere in your body.
Along the way, it is recommended to receive routine blood work during physical exam visits. You may even be able to get your blood work done before going into your doctor’s office. Routine blood work is used to check on your thyroid, cholesterol and lipid levels and also can flag any areas that may need attention or further testing.
The most common blood tests that doctors order for your yearly exam typically include:
- Complete Blood Count
- Basic Metabolic Panel
- Thyroid Panel
- Cholesterol & Lipid Panel
- Diabetes Risk Assessment
You can get these tests through your doctor or purchase them directly from Labcorp OnDemand. We offer a curated Women’s Health Test that includes all the routine bloodwork ordered by your doctor. We also offer a number of individual blood tests: a Comprehensive Metabolic Panel Test, a Complete Blood Count and a Thyroid Health Test if you are monitoring specific levels over time.
Screening for STIs
If you’re a sexually active young adult (18-25 years old), or you’re a sexually active adult with new or multiple partners (typically over 25 years old), you probably should receive annual screenings for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The two most common STIs—chlamydia and gonorrhea—are easily transmissible during sexual intercourse without proper protection. Left undetected or untreated, both can have tremendously negative impacts on your health and cause issues like infertility down the line. Your primary care provider can conduct screenings for the infections, or you can get a Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Trichomoniasis Test on your own with results sent privately to you.
These STIs create further complications for women who are wishing to become or already are pregnant. According to the CDC, “untreated chlamydial infection has been linked to problems during pregnancy, including preterm labor, premature rupture of membranes and low birth weight.” Furthermore, “untreated gonococcal infection in pregnancy has been linked to miscarriages, premature birth and low birth weight, premature rupture of membranes and chorioamnionitis.” And, ultimately, the fetus may become infected with the STI as well, potentially causing severe developmental complications. So, it’s important to be regularly testing for STIs to catch and treat early.
Screening for STIs Quick Guide
You should get screened:
- Annually, if you’re 18-25 years old and sexually active
- Annually, if you’re 25 or older with new or multiple sexual partners
- If you are wanting to become pregnant
Screening for cervical cancer
Cancer of the cervix—the connection between the upper part of the vagina and the uterus—is easily treatable if caught early, with great prospects for long survival and good quality of life. Because it occurs most often in women over the age of 30, it is recommended that women begin receiving either a Pap test every 3 years or the human papillomavirus (HPV) test every 5 years depending on their health and sexual history. HPV is the most common STI. In 2018, there were about 43 million infections, many of them coming from younger women in their teens and early 20s. In addition to the HPV vaccine, regular screenings help reduce this common infection’s spread and, like other STIs and diseases, catching it early makes treatment and monitoring that much easier for you and your primary care provider. Labcorp offers both kinds of tests, so you and your doctor can get an accurate view of your reproductive and sexual health.
Screening for breast cancer
Due to increased awareness and activism during the past few decades, the mammogram has become a well-known exam on everyone’s radar, especially for women over 40. At this age, it is recommended that women receive breast cancer screening annually. Ultimately, it is an x-ray picture of the breast that involves a little discomfort and pressure, as the breast is compressed between two plastic plates so the camera can take a still picture.
While this is one of the most frequently given health exams for women over 40, not all women get them. In 2018, only 66.7% of women in the U.S. reported having a mammogram within the previous two years. It is, by far, the best early detector for breast cancer available, so speak with your doctor if you are nearing that age or notice other abnormalities with your breast health.
Screening for colon cancer
Colon cancer is the 2nd leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S., but it is highly preventable with screening. Catching colon cancer early gives you a survival chance of 91%. Screening is strongly recommended for women over 45 years old, earlier if there is a family history.
There are multiple different ways to screen for colon cancer. The most common, and generally considered the gold standard, is a colonoscopy, although it is a procedure and both a day of preparation (to clean out your digestive tract) and some kind of anesthesia.
If you are of average risk, a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is a screening test that you can take in the comfort of you own home. It is designed to catch any bleeding in your digestive tract, a key marker of potential colon cancer. It requires no preparation or thick liquid drinks, as are required for a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, more comprehensive, diagnostic tests your doctor may order if there are any irregularities with the screening or if you are considered to be at higher risk due to family history or other factors.
For the FIT, typically, you will be supplied with a kit to use at home. All you have to do is follow instructions provided with the kit to collect a stool sample and then either mail or return it to your primary care provider, specialist or lab. A FIT test will indicate whether or not further testing, like a colonoscopy is needed.
Learn more about FIT testing and if it is right for you.
Screening for osteoporosis
Passing 50 is a milestone. Culturally, it usually signifies middle age. As we know, more potential health complications arise as you age, and 50 is a benchmark for more extensive screening and tests. A number of factors may lead to osteoporosis.
In fact, simply being female puts you at risk of developing osteoporosis. And this risk only increases as you age.
One of the potential side effects of aging is loss of bone density. Osteoporosis causes your bones to weaken and become more susceptible to fracture, especially the bones in the wrists, hip and spine. One of the direct links to loss of bone density is passing through menopause, which typically starts within a few years of age 50 and is another reason why it is recommended to receive screening around this time. Your doctor can screen for osteoporosis by using bone markers or bone mineral density screenings, both of which our labs are prepared to assess with expedient results. These help assess and monitor bone strength, which is necessary because, of the estimated 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, about 80% are women.
Screening for chronic kidney disease (CKD)
Your bones aren’t the only body parts susceptible to aging. It can also take a toll on your organs, which is why routine screening for chronic kidney disease (CKD) is recommended after 60. CKD results in the the gradual loss of function in your kidneys, which play a vital role in cleaning your blood and removing waste. If your kidneys suffer reduced function, waste products build up in your body, causing potentially irreparable harm. And frustratingly, early-stage signs or markers of CKD usually manifest as very few symptoms, if any.
Luckily, a simple blood and urine test—available through your doctor or directly through Labcorp OnDemand—can help assess your overall kidney health. And, like always, the earlier you know, the more you and your doctor can do to help manage your disease.
Regular immunizations provide support to help curtail, dampen or prevent known diseases like the flu and, in recent years, COVID-19. It is recommended that you receive your COVID-19 vaccination and booster shots to help keep you safe and prevent further spread of the disease (just as we do every year with the flu). And, after 50, it may be recommended that you receive the shingles vaccine to help prevent that very painful and invasive disease.
Talk to your doctor about the immunizations that are right for you. These may change based on your age and when you received your last shot.
We’re here to help facilitate your overall health
At the end of the day, your overall health is in your hands. It’s up to you to stay connected to your doctor and get the testing you need.
Knowing what’s going on with your health is an integral factor in living a long, healthy life. Half of knowledge is knowing where to find knowledge, and following age-based recommendations for routine physical and well-woman exams is a great start. Start by downloading our routine health checklists that outline the types of screenings you may need by gender and age. These can help you prepare for conversations with your doctor. You’ll also become well aware of all the options available.
We are here to help you get the information and answers you need in your overall health journey. As a pioneer in science and testing for 50+ years, Labcorp is trusted by doctors and hospitals for screening and diagnostic testing.
You can get our tests through your doctor or on your own through Labcorp OnDemand. If you use one of our many screening options, you can share your results with your doctor or primary healthcare provider so they can best determine the right path forward for you.
We hope you join us to Make Way for Better by taking our pledge to get back to health. We will provide resources to help and checklists to guide you in taking more control over your well-being.