5 Top Health Checks for Women

Health checks are an important measure for safeguarding our wellbeing. Certain health checks are specifically available to women, as their risk factors for certain diseases are higher than men. Today, we look at the health checks that all women should be getting.
Health checks are an important measure for safeguarding our wellbeing. Certain health checks are specifically available to women, as their risk factors for certain diseases are higher than men. Today, we look at the health checks that all women should be getting.

Health checks are an important part of looking after your wellbeing.

Regular health checks can help you identify and treat diseases in their early, less aggressive stages. They can also help you understand the risk factors for certain diseases, and how you can avoid them.

Certain health checks are specifically available for men and women, as their risk factors for certain diseases are different.

In this article, we are going to look at physical and emotional conditions that are common among women, and the health checks that are available to help women keep these conditions at bay.

Breast Health

One of the most important health checks that women can get are breast cancer screenings, as breast cancer is the second most common cancer to cause death in women, after lung cancer (according to the Cancer Council).

Breast cancer is a condition in which the cells lining the breast lobules or ducts begin to grow abnormally. Breast lobules are clusters of glands found deep inside the breasts’ fatty and fibrous tissue. They are responsible for producing milk. Breast ducts, meanwhile, are thin tubes that carry the milk from the lobules to the nipples.

As these cells continue to grow abnormally, they can begin to divide more rapidly than healthy cells and accumulate to form tumours. If left untreated, they can also spread or metastasise to other parts of the body. Late-stage cancer can be fatal, as it can interfere with key organs and stop them from functioning properly.

Common symptoms of breast cancer include:

  • A lump or area of thickened tissue in the breast (especially if only on one side).
  • A change in the size or shape of one or both breasts.
  • A change in the shape or appearance of the nipple, such as sores, discharge, or inversion (where the nipple turns in instead of pointing out).
  • Changes to the skin of the breasts, such as dimpling, swelling, or a red rash.
  • Discomfort or swelling in either armpit.

Breast cancer screenings are important for detecting breast cancer, as some people do not experience any symptoms at all. Likewise, early detection can increase the chances of good long-term prognosis. During a breast cancer screening, women will receive a mammogram, when the breasts are pressed between two x-ray plates, so clear pictures can be taken of the breast tissue.

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, a non-profit organisation that is regarded as the national digital gateway for women's health and wellbeing, recommends the following breast cancer screenings for women:

  • Women aged 19 – 39: Conduct a monthly self-examination to become familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts.
  • Women aged 40 – 49: Conduct a monthly self-examination to become familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts. Ask your doctor if you should be recommended for a formal screening.
  • Women aged 50 – 70: Get a formal screening every 2 years from the ages of 50 – 74.
  • Women aged 71+: Get a formal screening every 2 years up until the age of 74. From then on, ask your doctor if you should be recommended for a formal screening.

You can contact Breast Screen Australia to find a screening location near you.

Cervical Health

Another important health check for women is a cervical screening test, during which the cervix is checked for the presence of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer, from which there were over 200 deaths in Australia in 2019 (according to Cancer Australia).

HPV is a common virus that can infect both men and women through sexual contact. HPV generally does not show any symptoms and the body can clear the virus on its own. However, there are certain ‘high-risk’ types of HPV that can cause serious illness, including cervical cancer, vaginal cancers, and penile cancers.

The cervix forms part of the uterus. It is a cylinder-shaped neck of tissue that connects the main body of the uterus to the vagina. The outer part of the cervix is lined with squamous cells – thin, flat cells that look like fish scales. HPV can infect these squamous cells, cause them to grow abnormally, and then develop into cervical cancer if left untreated.

Common symptoms of cervical cancer include:

  • Vaginal bleeding in between periods, or after menopause.
  • Menstrual bleeding that is longer or heavier than usual.
  • Pain or bleeding during or after intercourse.
  • Pelvic pain.
  • A change in the colour, smell, or amount of vaginal discharge.

Cervical screening tests are important for detecting abnormal cells in the cervix, as precancerous changes in cervical cells rarely cause symptoms. Likewise, cervical cancer can be effectively treated when it is found early. During a cervical screening test, a speculum is gently inserted into the vagina to hold the vagina open, and to make it easier for cell samples to be collected from the cervix.

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health recommends the following cervical screening tests for women:

  • If you are 25 to 74 years old, have a cervix, and have ever been sexually active with a person of any gender, you need to have a cervical screening test. After that, you will only need to have the test every 5 years if your results are normal.

Sexual Health

It is important for women to regularly receive sexual health screenings, as chlamydia is the most frequently reported infectious disease in Australia, and it can lead to infertility in women (according to Health Direct).

Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) that is common among both men and women, though it is particularly prevalent among young women, with the highest rates of infection occurring in women aged between 15 and 24 (according to Healthline).

Chlamydia is caused by a specific strain of bacteria known as chlamydia trachomatis, which can be spread from person-to-person via unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause serious health problems, including cervicitis, inflammation of the cervix that can move to the fallopian tubes, scar them, and make it difficult to conceive a child.

Common symptoms of chlamydia in women can include:

  • Abnormal discharge from the vagina.
  • Pain while urinating.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.
  • Bleeding between periods and after sex.

Sexual health screenings are important for detecting chlamydia, as chlamydia in its early stages does not typically cause symptoms. Likewise, chlamydia can be easily treated with antibiotics when it is found early. There are numerous sexual health screenings available, depending on which STI you are most at risk for. While being screened for chlamydia, your healthcare provider may perform a physical examination of your vagina to observe and take swabs of any discharge, and they will likely ask for a urine sample.

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health recommends the following sexual health screenings for chlamydia:

  • If you are under 30 years of age and sexually active, have a urine test for chlamydia each year.

Mental and Emotional Health

Likewise, it is important for women to regularly check in with their doctor about any difficulties they may be experiencing with their mental and emotional health, as approximately 33% of women in Australia will experience anxiety during their lifetime (according to Beyond Blue).

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to real or perceived threats. It is an emotion characterised by feelings of worry and tension, and it can sometimes be accompanied by physical changes like sweating, trembling, and a fast heart rate. Anxiety is not the same as an anxiety disorder - people with anxiety disorders experience intense and excessive fear that persists beyond the stressful situation and pervades everyday life.

People with anxiety disorders may also regularly experience the following symptoms:

  • Feelings of nervousness or restlessness.
  • An impending sense of danger.
  • Difficulty concentrating on anything except the present worry.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Gastrointestinal problems.

It is important to seek help if you experience anxiety frequently, as it can impair your ability to function in personal and professional relationships. Likewise, there are a range of services available to help you manage anxiety, such as narrative therapy (which helps patients identify and reinterpret the narratives that they use to understand themselves), positive psychology (which helps patients focus on the behaviours that allow people to enjoy life despite its upsets), and cognitive behavioural therapy (which helps patients recognise thought and behaviour patterns that contribute to their anxiety).

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health recommends the following mental health screenings for women:

  • If you are experiencing symptoms such as intense sadness, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, or have had changes to your eating or sleeping habits, see your doctor to discuss these symptoms as early as you can.

Cardiovascular Health

Additionally, it is important for women to regularly receive checks for their cardiovascular health as, in 2017 - 2018, approximately 206,000 women had coronary heart disease (according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is an umbrella term used to describe conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. The 3 most common forms of CVD include coronary heart disease, stroke, and heart failure.

According to the Heart Foundation, coronary heart disease occurs when there is a build-up of plaque within the arteries that supply blood to the heart. This build-up of plaque gradually clogs the arteries and reduces the blood flow to the heart, which can lead to angina and/or heart attack.

Angina is a type of chest pain or discomfort that occurs when the blood flow to the heart is reduced temporarily. Other symptoms of angina include:

  • Pain radiating to other parts of the body, including the arms, neck, and jaw.
  • Sweating.
  • Dizziness and nausea.
  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of breath.

Angina is a sign of an underlying problem, rather than a disease itself, and so it can not cause death.

A heart attack, meanwhile, occurs when the build-up of plaque bursts and blocks the coronary artery. The symptoms of a heart attack are like those of angina. However, heart attacks can be fatal, as the longer the heart goes without oxygen, the greater the chance it will sustain permanent damage and begin to fail.

It is important for women to regularly receive checks for their cardiovascular health, as they tend to experience heart attacks differently to men. According to Dr Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and spokesperson for the American Heart Association, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure, and may instead experience less common symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, and extreme fatigue.

To check your likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, your healthcare provider will likely test the risk factors for a heart attack, including high blood pressure (as this can damage arteries and make them more prone to blocking), cholesterol (as this can cause a build-up of fatty deposits in the blood vessels), and high blood sugar (as this can damage blood vessels and the nerves that control the heart).

Jean Hailes for Women’s Health recommends the following cardiovascular health screenings for women:

  • Blood pressure check: Every 2 years after you turn 18.
  • Cholesterol check: Every 5 years after you turn 45, or more frequently if you are at a higher risk e.g., due to heredity.
  • Blood sugars/diabetes check: Every 3 years after you turn 40, or more frequently if you are at a higher risk.

Conclusion

Health checks are an important part of safeguarding your physical and emotional wellbeing.

They can help you identify and treat diseases in their early stages, as well as adopt healthier habits to proactively avoid risk factors for certain diseases.

Certain health checks are specifically available for men and women, as their risk factors for certain diseases are different.

It is important for women to get regular checks for their breast, cervical, sexual, emotional, and heart health, as they are more at risk of certain cancers, STIs, cardiovascular diseases, and mental health issues.

Head to the Jean Hailes for Women's Health website for more information on health checks that all women should be getting.

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