What Every Young Woman Should Know About Better Health
Remember in elementary school when the only regular health exams you had were those at the dentist for a teeth cleaning? Well, if you’re a female nearing 18 years of age your healthcare needs are changing. As your body matures and develops into adulthood, you’re going to need to pay it a bit more time and attention to keep it healthy.
Though no one likes spending any more time in the doctor’s office than necessary, there are a few extra items you’ll need to add to your healthcare checklist. Let’s look at them now, so you’ll be ready to take the next step when the time comes.
Blood Pressure Test
The first and most basic screening young women undergo is a blood pressure test. No, blood pressure tests aren’t just for the elderly or the sick. Your blood pressure (BP) can tell your healthcare professional a lot about what’s going on inside your body at any age. Your BP numbers can be the first indicator of a risk for hypertension (high blood pressure), hypotension (low blood pressure), diseases of the arteries or even heart disease.
Blood pressure tests are quick and easy and may be done manually or by a machine. Generally, a wide band, called the cuff, is wrapped around your upper arm just above the elbow. A small pump inflates the cuff which squeezes the upper arm slightly. Using a stethoscope, your healthcare professional will listen to your pulse as your heart pumps blood through the arteries.
The first number in a blood pressure reading is called systolic. This is the pressure in your arteries as your heart contracts. The second number is diastolic, which indicates the pressure in your arteries when your heart is relaxed.
According to WomensHealth.gov, beginning at the age of 18, women should have their blood pressure tested every two years if their BP is in the normal range (<120/80). If your blood pressure runs a little higher than that (120/80-139/89), have your BP checked annually. Speak with your doctor if your blood pressure runs at or above 140/90.
Cervical Cancer Screening/HPV
As a female, cervical cancer screening will be an important part of your routine healthcare just about as long as you have a cervix. In case you are unfamiliar with the cervix, it is a smooth cylinder, or neck, which connects the vagina to the uterus. The cervix is an important part of your reproductive system in that it changes to allow for the passage of or blockage of materials depending on your body’s needs. During childbirth, the cervix dilates and allows the baby to pass through the birth canal. It also helps to block harmful bacteria from migrating up through to other reproductive organs.
A key process in cervical cancer screening is the “Pap.” You may have heard the terms “Pap test” or “Pap smear.” These phrases are often followed by a grimace from women who are familiar with the experience, but the process isn’t as bad as it sounds.
Pap tests are performed during a pelvic examination, which is an exam focused on the female organs and reproductive system. This can be done by a gynecologist, a family practitioner, at a medical clinic or a community health clinic. Though a pelvic exam may cause some embarrassment (which, by the way, is completely normal and expected), it’s a relatively painless experience which generally takes about 5 minutes. If you have not had vaginal intercourse, a pelvic exam will not change anything inside your body. The hymen, or the skin which partially covers the vaginal opening, will be unaffected.
During the exam, the vaginal cavity is held open with an instrument called the speculum. The speculum allows your health professional to better see the upper vaginal cavity and cervix. Cell samples from the cervix will be gently scraped and/or brushed onto a microscope slide or into a vial depending on which type of test your doctor utilizes. This sample is then sent to a lab where it will be analyzed for any signs of cell irregularities.
The cell samples may also be tested for high-risk forms of HPV, or human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted virus which affects both men and women. HPV infection is the leading cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer. This virus is quite common, but if the immune system is unable to suppress it, an untreated infection can eventually lead to cancers in both sexes. Your health care provider will be notified of your test results and you will be contacted if there are any concerns.
Updated guidelines prepared by the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommend that a woman’s first Pap test occur at age 21 then every 3 years after. As with any screening process, talk with your doctor about their recommendations based on your health and history, or if you are experiencing any symptoms such as pain or discharge.
Women seem to have a host of gynecological concerns to tend to throughout their life. Cervical care is just one of them. Another form of sexually transmitted infection (STI) which can cause problems if left untreated is chlamydia. Chlamydia is considered to be one of the most common STIs in young women ages 15 to 24.
This infection may go untreated because it often has no symptoms. Untreated infections can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) which affects the reproductive system causing chronic pelvic pain, difficulty maintaining a pregnancy, and can lead to infertility. Untreated chlamydia infection may also increase the risk of acquiring HIV through sexual activity.
Chlamydia may be tested through swabs during a pelvic examination or through urine. The Office On Women’s Health recommends yearly testing for this disease at ages 18-24 if you are sexually active or become pregnant. Your doctor may recommend earlier testing if you become sexually active before age 18.
Cholesterol is a natural, fat-like substance within the body. Your body needs some cholesterol to work properly. The problem occurs when you have too much. Excess cholesterol builds up and begins stick to the walls of your arteries. This is called plaque. Plaque can narrow or even block your arteries.
High levels of cholesterol in your blood can increase the risk of heart disease. Though cholesterol levels tend to rise as we age, high cholesterol can occur at any age. There are usually no signs or symptoms that you have high cholesterol, but it can be detected with a simple blood test. If members of your family have been diagnosed with high cholesterol, if you are overweight or if you eat a lot of fatty foods, your risk of high blood cholesterol is greater.
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends women ages 20 and older have their cholesterol checked regularly if they have heart disease or are at increased risk for heart disease.
Diabetes is a serious health condition for any age individual and is on the rise in the United States. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas loses its ability to produce needed insulin and blood glucose levels rise. Insulin is a hormone which absorbs and converts the glucose in your blood into energy.
Elevated levels of blood glucose, or sugar, in your blood damages the nerves and blood vessels leading to problems such as complications during pregnancy, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, dental disease, and amputations.
There are three types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes, once referred to as juvenile diabetes; gestational diabetes; and type 2 diabetes.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) defines Type 1 diabetes as that which is usually first diagnosed in children, teens, and young adults. The pancreas can no longer make insulin and will require insulin shots or use of an insulin pump to help with your blood glucose needs. Regular physical activity is very important as well as control of your blood pressure and cholesterol. Some type 1 diabetes patients may take aspirin daily.
Gestational diabetes is a form which develops only during pregnancy. Conditions during this time make your body become resistant to insulin. A certain level of insulin resistance occurs in all women late in pregnancy, though in some, the pancreas cannot produce the amount of insulin their body needs. This is when gestational diabetes develops. Excessive weight gain during pregnancy, obesity at time of pregnancy as well as ethnicity and family history all contribute to the risk of gestational diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes. The NIDDK states that about 95 percent of people with diabetes have type 2. People of any age who are overweight and inactive are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Family history and ethnicity also play a role, as does the existence of prediabetes, a condition where elevated blood glucose levels are present, or a history of gestational diabetes. Treatment may include taking diabetes medications, dietary considerations, adding more physical activity to your day, and control of your blood pressure and cholesterol. Type 2 diabetes can be delayed or prevented with moderate dietary changes and increased physical activity.
There are different ways to test for diabetes, though all measure the amount of glucose in your blood. Women ages 18-25 should be screened for diabetes if their blood pressure is higher than 135/80. Women should also be screened if they take medication for high blood pressure or have other high-risk factors.
Two other forms of STIs are gonorrhea and syphilis. Both of these diseases may be present without any visual signs or symptoms and can be spread between partners of either sex. Gonorrhea is be spread through contact with infected bodily fluid. Syphilis is spread through contact with the sores or rash which develop during a syphilis infection. Though the sores may not be visible, they can erupt within the body. Both types of infection are caused by bacteria and can be successfully treated with antibiotics early in the disease. If left untreated, these diseases can cause long-term harm to your body. Syphilis can also be passed to your children through pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. Gonorrhea can be transmitted to infants through childbirth.
Syphilis is most generally diagnosed through a blood test. Cultures or urine samples are used to test for gonorrhea infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) women through the age of 25 should be tested annually for gonorrhea once they become sexually active and screened early in pregnancy in at-risk categories. The CDC also recommends syphilis screening for all pregnant women, or those who are at increased risk of contracting the disease. After the age of 25, testing needs will be determined based on pregnancy and risk factors.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that weakens the body’s immune system. It can lead to AIDS, a disease that depletes the body’s ability to fight certain types of infections and cancers. The most common ways HIV is spread are through sexual activity, injection drug use, or from mother to baby during pregnancy, labor, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
There is no cure for the virus, though HIV medicines are helping those affected by the disease live longer and more healthy lives. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved many drugs for treating HIV and its complications.
HIV may be tested through blood or oral swabs. Urine tests have also been used, but are rare. The Office On Women’s Health recommends that women be tested at least once to learn their HIV status. All pregnant women need to be tested for HIV as well. You should also discuss with your doctor or nurse your HIV risk factors. Risk factors include but are not limited to engaging in unprotected sex with more than one partner, injectable drug use history, having had sex with someone you consider to be at-risk for HIV, or having been diagnosed with another form of sexually transmitted infection. They may advise you be tested more frequently.
Know Your Body
These health screenings are guidelines developed by governmental agencies based on conditions most commonly affecting women ages 18-39. There are other health issues which you may encounter that are not represented here. Remember, the best way to help yourself stay healthy, is to know your body. If you notice changes happening within your body or with your health overall, pay attention. Those signs and symptoms are there for a reason. Make an appointment with your health care professional. There are a myriad of new responsibilities awaiting you as you mature into adulthood. Let’s put your health at the top of the list.