5 life-saving medical tests every woman needs and when to get them
There is an upside to the whole stranger-poking-around-my-vagina thing
Planning a visit to the gynaecologist can be a daunting experience for some women. Should you be the one to suggest getting routine medical tests, you have to brace yourself for a few rounds of “sab theek hai na?” conversations with well-meaning family members.
And if you somehow manage to snag that appointment, discussing one’s ‘lady problems’ with a stranger can be as uncomfortable as having ‘the talk’ with your parents. Let’s not forget — we’re still a country that changes the channel every time a condom ad beams on the living room TV.
But these regular medical tests can save your life. “Prevention is key to longevity,” says Dr Milloni Gadoya, gynaecologist and obstetrician, Apollo Spectra Hospital. “A woman’s body goes through many physical and hormonal changes from puberty to menopause. Most gynaecological conditions are preventable.”
So while every woman should make time to exercise, meditate to reduce stress and eat the right foods (#TeamAvocado), scheduling routine medical tests is a good habit to form for life.
Visit the gynaecologist at least once a year starting from the age of 18, or earlier if sexually active. Yes, it could be awkward at first, but you’ll most likely get over that feeling a few minutes after you walk out the door.
“Few diseases like cervical cancer and breast cancer that are common in women go undiagnosed until a later age due to ignorance,” says Dr Surabhi Siddhartha, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, Motherhood Hospital.
Discussing issues like PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), fibroids, breast disorders and abnormalities of the female reproductive tract with the gynaecologist is also vital.
There’s no room for guesswork here, so we broke down a list of standard medical tests every woman needs and how often we should get them done.
Routine medical tests to check off your list
What: Pap smear
When should you get it: After the age of 21
How often: A pap test alone every three years, or co-testing with a pap and HPV test every five years.
How is it done: You’ll lie on a table and the doctor will ask you to spread your legs. They will insert a metal or plastic tool (speculum) into your vagina to widen the vaginal walls, allowing them to see your cervix. A swab will be taken to get a sample of cells from the cervix.
Why it’s so important: This test looks for any abnormal or precancerous changes in the cells on the cervix (mouth of the womb). After a woman is sexually active, getting a pap smear done every three years is essential to diagnose cervical cancer early.
What: HPV test
When should you get it: After turning 30
How often: An HPV test alone every three years, or co-testing with a pap smear and HPV test every five years
How is it done: Same as the pap test.
Why it’s so important: HPV tests can find any of the high-risk types of HPV (human papillomavirus) that are commonly found in cervical cancer. As of 2018, an HPV test is an option for primary cervical cancer screening (meaning it can be done alone without a pap test).
When should you get it: Women over the age of 50
How often: Yearly from 50 to 54 years and every two years above the age of 55 years. Depending on family history and other factors, doctors may recommend this to women in other age groups.
How is it done: You stand in front of a safe, low-dose X-ray machine. A technician will place your breast on a plate while another plate presses the breast from above. This is done to flatten the breast and to hold it still while the X-ray is taken. A side view is also taken. The same steps are repeated on the other breast.
Why it’s so important: An annual checkup by a gynaecologist is important to check for lumps or abnormalities in the breast. Any suspicious swelling should be further investigated. Mammograms aren’t perfect, but they are the best tool at the moment to fight breast cancer. If you catch it early, it just might be possible to stop cancer from spreading further.
What: STDs tests
When should you get it: After becoming sexually active
How often: Women with risk factors such as new or multiple sex partners should be tested for gonorrhoea, genital herpes and chlamydia every year. Pregnant women should be tested for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B starting early in pregnancy.
How is it done: STD testing is done with a sterile q-tip, which is used to take a swab from the vagina. A simple blood test is enough to test for syphilis and hepatitis.
Why it’s so important: Often, STDs have no symptoms and can be hard to catch. They cause severe health issues and make you more prone to catching other possibly fatal STDs, like AIDS. Also, you could take precautions that prevent it spreading to others.
What: HIV test
When should you get it: Between the ages of 18-64 years
How often: Get tested at least once for HIV. Those who are at high risk for infection should get tested every three to six months.
How is it done: A simple blood test will suffice.
Why it’s so important: In 2017, India had the third-largest HIV positive population in the world, with 2.1 million people. This testing is essential in slowing the spread of the infection and an early diagnosis could result in treatment that may delay the progression to AIDS.
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