You make sure your kids and husband get to the doctor to get the tests and medical attention they need. But what about you? What medical tests should you be getting to stay healthy and prevent illness?
Scott & White obstetrician/gynecologist Pamela Greene, MD, offers women some advice on how to determine what medical screenings are best for them.
“Women need to come in [to their obstetrician’s office] for an annual well-woman visit,” Dr. Greene said. “At that visit is where we decide what that particular patient needs.”
What is it? The Pap test or Pap smear checks for abnormal cells on the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina. The test can determine if a patient has an infection, unhealthy cells or cervical cancer.
Who needs it? All mothers over the age of 21 should be getting a pap smear on a regular basis. Your doctor will help you to determine how often that should be.
Why is it important? Pap smears can detect pre-cancerous or cancerous cells. If cancer is found early, it significantly improves the patient’s chances of being cured.
How often do I need it? Doctors used to recommend that women get one of these every year, but now doctors are basing a woman’s need for this kind of test on her age and previous Pap test results.
According to Dr. Greene, most women only need a Pap smear every 2-3 years. However, if you have been treated for a significantly abnormal Pap smear, then you will need to come in every year for 10 years. If you had abnormal test results that did not require treatment, then you will only need to have a follow up Pap smear every 6 to 12 months until at least two normal, consecutive Pap tests are documented.
“It depends on who you are, if you’ve had abnormal pap smears, and if you’re in a monogamous relationship.”
If you have had an abnormal pap smear, then you need to come in every year for 10 years, the obstetrician said.
What is it? An exam and/or bloodwork that helps determine if you have a sexually transmitted disease or infection.
Who needs it? Mothers who have a new partner or who have had multiple partners.
Why is it important? Some STDS, like the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), can develop into cancer. Testing can be the first step in preventing cancerous cells from developing. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause pelvic infections that could lead to fever, pain, hospitalization. Some STDS can even cause damage to the fallopian tubes that could lead to difficulty getting pregnant or life-threatening illness.
How often do I need it? “Every time you get a new partner, you need to be screened for at least Chlamydia and gonorrhea,” Dr. Greene said. “
Thyroid Function Tests
What is it? A blood test that measures the amount of Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). This test (pdf) will help doctors determine if your thyroid is failing and whether or not you have too much TSH (hypothyroidism) or not enough (hyperthyroidism).
Who needs it? Women who are gaining or losing weight without dieting or overeating, may need to get their thyroid checked.
Why is it important? The thyroid (pdf) helps set your metabolism – how your body gets energy from the foods you eat.3 If the thyroid is not working properly, it can make you gain weight, feel fatigued and have difficulty dealing with cold or hot temperatures.
How often do you need it? Your doctor will help you determine how often your thyroid function should be tested. Often times the frequency of testing is based on family history and prior test results.
What is it? If your blood glucose is higher than 120 mg/dL, or greater than 105 mg/dL for pregnant women, then your doctor may recommend a fasting blood glucose test which is determined by a blood test.
Who needs it? “If you are overweight and you have a family history of diabetes, then you might need to be screened,” Dr. Greene said. The doctor begins testing her patients at 35, and recommends they get tested every five years after that.
Women who have had diabetes during pregnancy (gestational diabetes) may also need to be tested because they have a higher risk of developing diabetes later in life.
Why is it important? If you have diabetes that goes undetected, you may be at risk of developing problems with your eye sight, sores and infections on your feet, elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, nerve damage and kidney damage.
How often do I need it? Your doctor will help you determine how often you should be tested. Often times the frequency of testing is based on family history and prior test results.
What is it? A blood test that measures the High density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol and the low density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol.
Who needs it? “If you are overweight and you have a family history of cholesterol, then you might need to be screened,” Dr. Greene said.
Why is it important? Cholesterol screenings are performed so your doctor can determine your risk for developing heart disease or other conditions that are associated with the narrowing of the arteries.5
How often do I need it? “Between the ages of 20 and 40, mothers should get their cholesterol tested at least once to make sure that isn’t an issue,” the obstetrician said.
However, your cholesterol levels may need to be checked more often if you have a family history of cholesterol problems.
What is it? A mammogram is an X-ray picture of the breast. Mammograms are used to check for signs of breast cancer or to determine if cancer is present in a lump.6
Who needs it? “I have some 40-year-old moms who are having babies, and they have to start having mammograms,” Dr. Greene said. “So, if you’re 40, you need to get a mammogram.”
However, if one or more of your immediate relatives have been diagnosed with breast cancer or died from the disease, you might need to have a mammogram sooner.
Why is it important? Detecting the signs and symptoms of breast cancer early in the development of the disease and before it has spread to other areas of the body will give the patient a better chance of successful treatment of the disease.
How often do I need it? If you are performing a breast self-exam every month and do not have a family history of breast cancer, then you probably don’t need a mammogram before age 40.
Dr. Greene said, depending on your family and medical history, you may not need all of these screenings every year. The best way to determine what you need is to be assessed by a doctor annually.
“I tell my patients, come in every year and we’ll figure out what you need to be tested for,” she said.
For more information about tests you may need or to set up your annual well-woman appointment, contact one of Scott & White’s obstetricians/gynecologists.
This article has been edited for accuracy.
About the author
Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.