Every woman should have (but not every woman does have) these 7 routine medical tests. Can you name them? Routine medical checks can save lives, and most of them can be done at our GPs or local clinics — so we should all be making appointments and reaping the health benefits.
No one wants to visit their doctor if they don’t have to, but the best way to prevent illnesses from developing is to spot them early on. Even if you’re feeling fine, getting checked out and confirming that you’re well will give you peace of mind.
Here’s what you should be getting checked on a regular basis…
1. Your cervix
The cervical screening test, or smear test, is one of the most important check-ups a woman can get, as cervical cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosed in South African women.
In a recent survey, the main reasons women gave for not having the test was because they found it embarrassing or painful, or they couldn’t find a convenient time. But cervical cancer is preventable if you regularly check for abnormal cells around the cervix before they turn cancerous.
Some GPs offer the test in their consultation rooms, but you can also have it done by your gynaecologist. If you haven’t had a smear test in the last three years, make an appointment now!
IF you’re older than 25, you can even do your own test at home with Udo home HPV tests!
How often? Once a year, starting between the ages of 21 and 25. If you’ve had 3 consecutive clear pap smears, you can consider having the test once every 2 or 3 years.
2. Your breasts
Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in South Africa, with around one in 29 women developing the disease every year. But thanks to advances in research, treatments, screening and breast awareness, survival rates are hugely improved and many people are being cured.
Mammograms are usually recommended for women over the age of 40; there are, however, circumstances where no matter what your age, you should be screened regularly. If your mom or sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, if two relatives on the same side of the family were diagnosed , or if you have relatives who had ovarian cancer, then you should get screened, too.
All women are encouraged to become familiar with the shape and feel of their breasts, and to carry out monthly self-examinations, so we can spot any changes.
How often? Every year if you’re over 40. However, you need to check your own breasts monthly for changes to the look and feel of the skin, any change in the position of the nipple and change in the shape or size of the breast.
3. Your blood (and its pressure)
High blood pressure can cause heart attacks, kidney disease, strokes and eye problems. Yet it’s known as the ‘silent killer’ because it rarely has obvious symptoms. In South Africa, statistics show that around 130 people have heart attacks every day and 240 suffer strokes daily. One in four people in SA suffer from high blood pressure and because it’s not easy to spot, often they don’t even know they’ve got it.
In particular, if you smoke, eat a lot of salty food, are overweight or have a family history of strokes or heart attacks, you should ask to see your GP now. Most medical aids cover annual blood pressure checks.
How often? Once a year, more often if there is a history of high blood pressure in your family.
4. Your sugar levels
Incredible as it may sound, it’s estimated there are around 3,5 million people in South Africa who are living with undiagnosed diabetes, mostly type 2. You’re more at risk if you’re older than 35, overweight (especially if you carry most of your weight around the waist), have high blood pressure or heart disease and if a close family member already has the disease.
If left untreated, diabetes is a huge health risk, because it can lead to blindness and kidney failure. A few symptoms to watch out for include extreme thirst, blurred vision, lack of energy or cuts that are slow to heal.
Get tested by doing a simple finger-prick test at your local pharmacy or clinic. If diagnosed, type 2 diabetes can be treated, occasionally by simply altering your lifestyle, or otherwise coupled with medication.
How often? Ask your GP for a blood glucose check if you’ve hit 35. Go sooner if you’re overweight, have a waist measurement of more than 80cm or have a close relative with diabetes.
Read more: Tips to help you prevent diabetes
5. Your thyroid
Feeling tired and depressed? Putting on weight, suffering from dry skin and feeling the cold more than usual? You could have an underactive thyroid.
Your thyroid produces hormones that control your metabolism and if it’s not working properly, it can leave you feeling sluggish and miserable. Your GP can give you a simple blood test to check, and if your levels need correcting, you’ll be given hormone replacement tablets.
The thyroid gland can also cause problems if it’s overactive, leaving sufferers feeling nervous and anxious, with unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath and sweating. It’s more common in women, with around eight in 100 women suffering from it, and it can occur at any age.
How often? In either case, you should see your GP when you feel the onset of these symptoms. If you’re diagnosed, you’ll have regular tests to make sure you’re taking the right medication.
6. Your iron levels
Constant fatigue and looking pale and washed-out are the common symptoms of anaemia. The condition — caused by a lack of red blood cells — is diagnosed with a blood test. Left untreated, your body’s immune system will take a serious thrashing and you’ll become more susceptible to illness and infection. Severe untreated anaemia can also increase your risk of tachycardia (an abnormally fast heartbeat) and even heart failure.
If your GP thinks a lack of iron has contributed to your anaemia, then they could recommend a change in diet or iron supplements. Iron-rich foods include dark-green leafy vegetables, such as watercress and kale, iron-fortified cereals, nuts, meat and prunes.
How often? You should book a test if you feel unnaturally tired. If you’re found to have anaemia, you’ll be checked every few months to make sure your treatment is working.
7. Your bones
Even the sturdiest of skeletons gets thinner as we get older — putting us at risk of osteoporosis, which affects around one in three women in South Africa. You’re particularly at risk if you drink more than the recommended guidelines, smoke, don’t get enough exercise or have coeliac disease. After menopause, lower levels of the hormone oestrogen mean you lose bone mass faster. Osteoporosis can be treated with drugs, but lifestyle changes early on, like weight-bearing exercises, limiting alcohol intake and stopping smoking, can make a big difference.
How often? Talk to your GP about having a BMD test (bone mineral density); they will let you know when and how often you should go based on your risk factors.