Focus on women's health

Prevention is key to women's health. A "well-woman" exam can assess breast and gynecological health, as well as address diet, exercise and supplements. This annual exam can be done by a family practice doctor, gynecologist, midwife, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. If problems or significant risk factors are detected, you may be referred to a specialist.

Screening recommendations vary throughout a women’s lifetime; this overview can help guide your visit with your provider.

HPV vaccine

Typical gynecologic health visits start as early as age 11 with discussion of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. This vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer, is targeted to young women before they become sexually active. Older women who have never been sexually active or have risk factors, such as multiple partners, also can benefit from the vaccine.

Pelvic exams and pap smears

Pelvic exams and pap smears do not begin until age 21 unless a woman is having problems. A pap smear checks for changes in the cervix, where the vagina connects to the womb. Recommendations are to screen every one to two years for women ages 21 to 29 and every one to three years for women ages 30 to 69. Typically, women age 60 and older need pap smears only if they have a history of abnormal pap smears or a lifestyle change.

Discussions of safe sex and screening for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) should begin prior to the start of sexual activity. In addition, depending on sexual activity, women should be tested for STDs through cervical or urine testing.

Child-bearing years and later

Women in their child-bearing years should take folic acid to prevent birth defects and calcium and vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis (bone thinning). Screening for cholesterol, diabetes, and thyroid disorders depends on your family risk factors.

Perimenopausal women (typically in their late 40s and 50s) should discuss mammograms, screening for cholesterol, diabetes, and thyroid disorders, and bone health. Menopausal women should ask about the same things as women in their 40s to 50s do, but should focus more on heart and bone health.

Mammograms

The question of when women should have a mammogram has been in the news. Experts with UI Women’s Health and UI Radiology continue to recommend that women age 50 and older receive a mammogram each year.  If you are age 40 to 49, discuss with your health care provider when to begin mammograms. UI experts continue to recommend this screening every one to two years beginning at age 40. 

If you have a first-degree relative (mother or sister) who developed breast cancer, begin screenings when you are 10 years younger than the age at which your family member was diagnosed.

Last reviewed: 
June 2017

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