Women’s Guide to Preventive Care

What is women’s preventive care?

By the time they reach adulthood, it’s important for women to take an active approach to health care. This means making it a priority to schedule routine screenings and services. Preventive care includes immunizations, testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and more.

Staying on top of your preventive care is important. Doing so can help you to stay healthy and receive fast treatment for medical problems should they arise. Catching a problem earlier can result in an easier, more effective treatment. It can also mean fewer costs in the long run. Regular preventive care can even help to identify your potential for disease before it happens.

Path to improved health

General Health Screenings

Every woman should have a well-woman visit at least once a year. A well-woman visit is an annual preventive care appointment. It allows your doctor to perform a physical and discuss your lifestyle habits. He or she will make sure your immunizations and prescriptions are up to date. You may also discuss forms of contraception, or birth control, during this visit.

Breast Health

Starting in a woman’s 20s, a doctor should perform a clinical breast exam at least every three years. When a doctor does a clinical breast exam, he or she will feel your breasts for any abnormalities or differences since your last exam. He or she will also feel your underarms and the area below your clavicle. If your doctor has not offered a breast exam, ask if he or she can provide one. If not, they may be able to refer you to another doctor’s office.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends mammogram screenings every other year for women aged 50 to 74 years. Starting mammogram screenings earlier (for women aged 40 to 49 years) is a personal choice that you should discuss with your doctor.

Reproductive and Sexual Health

Beginning at the age of 21, women should be getting a Pap smear every three years. A Pap smear, or a Pap test, is a medical exam performed by a doctor. This is usually part of a pelvic exam during a well-woman visit.

During your Pap smear, your doctor will collect cells from your cervix, which is at the bottom of your uterus. These cells are analyzed for anything unusual in order to detect cancer or even pre-cancerous cells.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) does not recommend Pap smears for women under age 21. Women 21 to 29 years of age should have a Pap smear every 3 years. Women 30 to 65 years of age should have a Pap smear every 5 years with HPV testing, or every 3 years if screening with a Pap smear alone. By age 65, women who have had adequate screening and are not at high risk for cervical cancer do not need Pap smears.

Depending on your age and risk of infection, your doctor should also perform STI tests during your well-woman exam. If you are age 25 or younger and sexually active, you should be screened by a doctor on a regular basis. Older women should be tested when they have new or multiple sexual partners.

Immunizations

Your yearly well-woman visit is also a good time to review immunization needs with your doctor. He or she can recommend and provide the vaccines you need.

Each year, the AAFP and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) collaborate to develop recommendations for the routine use of vaccines in children, adolescents, and adults in the United States.

The AAFP recommends vaccinations for adults who meet age requirements, lack documentation of prior vaccinations, or who have no evidence of past infection, including a flu shot each year, a tetanus booster every 10 years, human papillomavirus vaccine (2 or 3 doses depending on age at initial vaccination), and more.

Emotional Health

Your doctor should also ask you questions about your emotional health. If you have feelings of hopelessness, have had changes in your sleep (sleeping too much or too little), changes in your appetite, or are not interested in things that used to interest you, talk to your doctor. Even if you just haven’t felt like yourself. And be honest.

Your doctor’s office is also a safe place to talk about domestic abuse. In fact, your doctor may ask you if you feel safe at home. If you feel trapped in an abusive relationship, tell your doctor.

When to see a doctor

You should see your doctor each year for a well-woman visit. Your doctor’s office should usually remind you when you are due for your next annual exam. It also can be helpful to plan it around the same time each year.

If you have had sex with a new partner, it’s important to speak with your doctor about additional STI testing.

Questions for your doctor

  • Do you recommend that I have a Pap smear during my annual exam this year?
  • Are all of my immunizations up to date?
  • Do any of my prescriptions need to be renewed before my next annual exam?
  • Is there anything I can do to prevent cervical cancer?
  • Do I need to make any lifestyle changes to help prevent STIs?
  • How do I give myself a breast exam? And how often should I give myself a breast exam?