Tips to Live By

How Often Do You Need a Well-Woman Exam?

June 11, 2024

By Kate Andropoulos

Regular gynecological care is key to every woman's health journey. But how frequently do you actually need to go into your gynecologist's office for a well-woman exam?

According to Dr. Sarah A. Hoopes, an OB-GYN at Houston Methodist, every woman should aim for an annual well-woman exam.

"It's nice to have somebody who can partner with you on your health and preventive care and to make sure that you're getting the screening items that you need," she says. "Not every screening needs to be done annually, but at least you have that touchpoint with your provider because a woman's health changes over time."

Knowing needs can shift from year to year, women should schedule screenings to coincide with the physiological and hormonal changes that occur with pregnancy, childbirth and age.

Dr. Hoopes explains how an OB-GYN is a partner in health for each season of a woman's life.

The importance of women's health screenings

Breast and pelvic exams are a routine part of the annual well-woman checkup, but the recommended regularity of some other screenings, such as Pap smears and co-testing for the human papillomavirus (HPV), can come down to a few different variables.

"The frequency of these screenings is dependent on your age, risk factors and prior Pap smear results," says Dr. Hoopes.

Recommendations also sometimes can be at odds. In 2024, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated its mammogram screening guidelines, so the starting age is now aligned with that of both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Cancer Society. But other aspects of the guidelines can differ.

"We're all now recommending starting mammograms at age 40," says Dr. Hoopes. "But some groups recommend annual screening while some groups recommend every other year, which is why it's important to speak to your doctor about what screening strategy is right for you."

Dr. Hoopes also recommends women go to their OB-GYN provider for sexual transmitted infections (STI) testing as needed. Ditto the HPV vaccine, which can be administered up to the age of 45.

"The vaccine is a great way to prevent your risk for cervical cancer, head and neck cancers, and genital warts, and we have some new data coming out to show that it actually prevents progression or recurrence of abnormal Pap smears," she says.

Your OB-GYN provider can also recommend colon cancer screenings and bone density testing depending on age range and risk factors. (Related: Who Should Get Screened for Osteoporosis?)

From young womanhood to menopause and beyond

No matter the stage of life, your OB-GYN provider can help guide you. Menstrual cycle changes, STIs and contraceptives are common topics. So is family planning.

"Women might want help with getting pregnant and how to maximize their chances of having a safe pregnancy," says Dr. Hoopes. "Then the menopausal transition: What is that going to look like for you? Are you struggling with hot flashes, brain fog or mood changes?"

You can also count on your OB-GYN for support with mental health or personal safety concerns.

"I screen each patient for depression, as well as for domestic or intimate partner violence in the household, so I can intervene, if necessary," says Dr. Hoopes. "These topics can also be brought up at your annual well-woman visit."

(Related: Yes, Mom Brain Is Real — Here Are Tips for Improving It)

Pain, incontinence and more

Dr. Hoopes also urges women to bring their most sensitive questions to their OB-GYN provider.

"Urinary or fecal incontinence, vaginal discharge, vulvar complaints, burning, pelvic pain or sexual dysfunction in a broad sense — I encourage patients to bring everything up, because it may indicate an underlying medical problem," she says.

(Related: Will Urinary Incontinence Go Away on Its Own?)

Seemingly unrelated symptoms could be signs of something more serious, which you should also take to your doctor. For example, according to Dr. Hoopes: "Certain clusters of symptoms, like feeling full when you shouldn't, bloating, pelvic pain and unexpected weight loss, are the symptoms of ovarian cancer, which is usually something that we're catching late rather than early."

Whatever your women's health concern, Dr. Hoopes emphasizes the value of an annual well-woman checkup.

"For education's sake, every year you can have that touchpoint to say, 'Hey, this is what I'm going through is this normal or is it not?'"

Schedule your next well-woman exam today

What occurs during an annual well-woman exam may change depending on your life stage, but the importance of routine OB-GYN care to your overall health remains the same.

"Women are caregivers, and they're doing so much for so many other people," says Dr. Hoopes. "Take the time to care for yourself, ask the questions you need answered and learn about your body. Your OB-GYN is here to help."

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