10 Health Screenings All Women Should Have
These 10 are a good start.
1. Blood pressure screening.
Starting at age 18, every woman needs to have her blood pressure checked at least every two years. This health screening involves wrapping a cuff around the arm and pumping it up tightly. Ideal blood pressure for women is less than 120/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). If your insurance doesn’t cover a blood pressure screening (though most insurance companies do), check into free screenings in your community.
2. Cholesterol check.
Women should have their cholesterol checked at least every five years starting at about age 20. This screening is important for decreasing your risk of heart disease, and can be done at your doctor’s office or at a lab with a doctor’s order, as the test only involves drawing a blood sample. Some community health fairs offer quick cholesterol screenings, involving nothing but a finger-prick. If you get a high reading on this screening test, you will be referred to your doctor for more complete testing. The ideal level is below 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) for total cholesterol.
3. Pap smears and pelvic exams.
Beginning at age 21, or earlier if you are sexually active, women need to have a pelvic exam and Pap smear every two years to check for any abnormalities in the reproductive system. Guidelines for this cervical cancer screening recently changed from once a year, as studies found no benefit to such frequent screenings. Barring any problems, women age 30 and older only need a Pap smear every three years if they have had three normal tests in a row. To take the Pap smear, a speculum is placed inside the vagina to widen the vaginal canal, and your doctor uses a small tool to take cells from the cervix to detect any cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Your doctor can also screen for sexually transmitted diseases.
4. Mammograms and breast exams.
Starting around age 20, women should have a clinical breast exam at least every three years until age 40, when this should be done annually, according to most experts. This is a manual exam — your doctor uses her fingers to examine the breasts for any lumps or abnormalities. A mammogram is a screening test for breast cancer and involves applying moderate compression to the breasts so that X-ray images can be captured. Mammograms are done every one or two years once you turn 40. Despite a recent government task force recommendation to push the start of mammograms back to age 50, the American Cancer Society still recommends earlier screening.
5. Bone density screen.
Women should start getting screened for osteoporosis with a bone density test at age 65. Women with risk factors for osteoporosis, such as having a slender frame or a fractured bone, should be screened earlier. For this test, you lie on the table while a scanning machine takes X-ray images of certain bones in your body. Healthy bones show a T-score (the measurement used to describe your bone density) of -1 or higher. The frequency of this health screening varies from woman to woman based on bone density and risk factors.
6. Blood glucose tests.
Women should get a blood glucose test every three years starting at age 45 to test for diabetes or pre-diabetes. Before age 45, you may need to have your blood glucose levels tested if you have symptoms of diabetes or several risk factors. Your blood sample can be taken and tested at your doctor’s office or a lab. The range of normal test results can vary, but generally a test result of 100 mg/dL or higher indicates pre-diabetes or diabetes.
7. Colon cancer screening.
Colon cancer screening tests for women generally start at age 50. Depending on the type of test, you will have this health screening at a doctor’s office or a hospital. The more traditional tests are the flexible sigmoidoscopy, a procedure in which a lighted tube and camera are inserted through the anus to look at the lower part of the colon, and a colonoscopy, which involves a longer tube to examine the entire colon. Unless a problem is found, a flexible sigmoidoscopy needs to be repeated every 5 to 10 years and a colonoscopy only every 10 years. The non-invasive virtual colonoscopy is another option. People with a greater risk of colon cancer may need earlier or more frequent cancer screening tests.
8. Body mass index.
A full yearly physical exam includes measurements of your height and weight and a calculation of your body mass index (BMI). You can also calculate your BMI at home using an online BMI calculator. BMI indicates obesity, which can assess the risk of serious health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
9. Skin examination.
Women should examine their skin every month starting at age 18, and by the time they’re 20, a doctor or dermatologist should conduct the examination during a routine check-up. Women should carefully inspect the skin all over their bodies, looking for any new moles or changes to existing moles to spot the early signs of skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology offers free skin cancer screenings from dermatologists.
10. Dental check-up.
Good dental health is important from the moment your first baby tooth sprouts, and all adult women need twice-yearly dental check-ups and cleanings. Regular dental check-ups, which involve examining the teeth and sometimes taking X-rays, can keep teeth healthy and spot early signs of decay or any problems with the mouth or teeth.
Because these tests are considered preventive, many insurance plans cover them. However, there may be certain criteria that you have to meet, such as the reason for the test, the time elapsed since your last test, your age at the time of the test, whether the provider is in your plan’s network, and other rules.
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH