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Frequently Asked Questions About Women's Health

  • What are the most important things a woman can do on her own to protect her health?
  • Answer:

    Keeping a keen eye out for early signs of health problems is important, but there are also things you can do to protect yourself now and in the future. These include:

     

    • Eating a sensible diet -- that includes all the major food groups -- and watching portion size.
    • Try for 30 minutes of exercise or more daily.
    • Protect your bones by eating three servings of low-fat dairy every day and performing weight-bearing exercises -- like walking, running, aerobics, or dancing -- at least three times a week.
    • Get regular health screenings.
    • Take time out for yourself. Experts say 30 minutes a day is ideal if you can swing it. Make it a time when you do something just for you -- reading, taking a bath, working in the garden, chatting online with friends -- whatever relieves your stress will add years to your life and life to your years!

  • What are the most important medical screening tests for women and at what age should they have them?
  • Answer:

    While not all medical organizations agree on what you need and when, here’s what the Office for Women’s Health at the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests:

    • Blood pressure test -- At least every two years beginning at age 18
    • Cholesterol test -- Start at age 20 and let your doctor suggest frequency.
    • Bone mineral density test -- Have baseline test around age 65 and let your doctor decide on frequency. You may need early screening if you have certain risk factors.
    • Blood sugar test (diabetes) -- Get tested if your blood pressure is higher than 135/80 or if you have medication for high blood pressure. The U.S. Preventive services Task Force is now considering recommending that all adults 45 and older, and younger people with risk factors should be tested for diabetes.
    • Mammogram -- Screening is recommended every 2 years from age 50 through 74. Women in different age groups should talk to their doctor about whether they should be screened. Talk to your doctor about what schedule is right for you.
    • Cervical cancer screening -- Get a Pap test at least every three years from age 21 to 30 if you are sexually active unless your doctor recommends more frequent tests.
    • Colorectal health testing -- Get screened starting at age 50 with either fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy.
      • Ask your doctor which test is right for you. You may need earlier screening if you have certain risk factors.

    Your own screening recommendations may vary depending on your personal risk factors.Talk to your doctor about a screening plan that is best for you.

  • What are the most important medical symptoms women should not ignore?
  • Answer:

    While any symptom that causes you distress should be reported to your doctor, there are some specific signs no woman should ever ignore. They include:

     

    • Heart attack: Pain or discomfort in the center of the chest sometimes accompanied by pain in the upper body including arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach; shortness of breath; a cold sweat; nausea; or lightheadedness. Remember, women are more likely than men to have a heart attack without having chest pain.  
    • Stroke: Sudden severe headache. Sudden or developing problems with speech, sight, balance, walking, confusion, or coordination, as well as numbness or weakness in the face, arms, or legs. Call 911 if you have any of these symptoms.  
    • Reproductive health problems: Bleeding or spotting between periods; itching, burning, bumps, blisters, or sores on the vagina or genital area; pain during sex; severe menstrual pain; severe pelvic pain; unusual vaginal discharge, lower back pain with bloating and/or feelings of fullness; difficult or painful urination.
    • Breast problems: Nipple discharge, breast tenderness or pain, changes in the skin covering the breast or nipples (ridges, dimpling, pitting, swelling, redness, or scaling), a lump or thickening in the tissue of the breast or underarm area, or tenderness in these areas.
    • Digestive or stomach problems: Bleeding from the rectum; blood or mucus in the stool or black stools; change in bowel habits; constipation, diarrhea, or both; constant heartburn; pain or feeling of fullness in stomach; bloating; vomiting blood.
    • Skin problems: A new mole or changes in the color, shape, or size of an existing mole; small lump on skin that is smooth, shiny, and waxy and sometimes reddish brown in color; painful, crusty, scaling, or oozing skin lesions that don’t heal within 14 days.

  • What are the most important nutrients women need?
  • Answer:

    While a lot depends on diet and lifestyle habits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services say many women are not consuming enough folate (a B vitamin) or calcium. Folate (or folic acid) helps support growth and development, prevents certain birth defects, and anemia during pregnancy, and may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers. Calcium is not only important to bone health but also overall health. Not taking enough calcium, beginning as a teenager, can increase your risk of osteoporosis (a painful bone-thinning disorder) later in life. The recommended level of daily folate intake in women is 400 micrograms daily, unless you are pregnant (600 micrograms) or nursing (500 micrograms). In terms of daily calcium requirements, women aged 19-50 need 1,000 milligrams; after age 50, 1,200 milligrams. Pregnant or nursing women aged 18 and younger should get 1,300 milligrams. Women should also get adequate amounts of vitamin D to help the body use calcium.

  • What is the best source of nutrients for a busy woman -- food or vitamin supplements?
  • Answer:

    The best sources of any nutrients are fresh, whole foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Studies are mixed as to the benefits and possible risks of taking a multivitamin supplement. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.  

     

     

     

  • How much exercise does a woman need for weight control?
  • Answer:

    To prevent weight gain, the National Women’s Health Center suggests 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on most days of the week, while watching caloric intake. To keep weight off they suggest 60 to 90 minutes daily of vigorous activity. Check with your doctor before increasing activity levels.

  • If a woman is not overweight, does she still need to exercise? And if so, what benefits will she gain?
  • Answer:

    To help protect against chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, including breast cancer, experts say every woman should have a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity weekly, which breaks down to about 30 minutes of moderate activity (like walking, dancing, or bike riding) most days of the week. Regular exercise can also help lower blood pressure, keep bones and joints healthy, reduce anxiety and depression, help you sleep better, and help control pain from arthritis.

  • Is the birth control pill still considered safe? What about the extended pill -- does it carry any extra health risks?
  • Answer:

    Most birth control pills in use today are far safer than those used in the past -- mainly because they contain far lower levels of hormones. In fact, the pill has been shown to help protect women from ovarian and endometrial cancers. While numerous studies have looked at the relationship between the pill and breast cancer, there is no conclusive evidence of a link. However, if you smoke, the pill may increase your risk of high blood pressure, blood clots, and blocked arteries. If you are over age 35 and smoke, or if you have a history of blood clots or breast, liver, or certain gynecological cancers, the pill may not be the best choice for you. Also, the FDA is conducting ongoing research on the safety of birth control pills containing drospirenone (such as Yaz and Yasmin) due to a possiblity of an increased risk of blood clots. There are no extended health warnings associated with continuous birth control pills like Seasonale, which provide for one menstrual cycle every few months.

  • With all the advances in fertility treatments, how old is too old for a woman to try to get pregnant?
  • Answer:

    All women see a decline in their fertility beginning around age 35, making it far more difficult -- but not impossible -- to conceive naturally. Note, however, that the risk of birth defects, including Down syndrome, increases as a woman ages, as does the risk of an ectopic pregnancy, which can be life threatening.

    Treatments such as in vitro fertilization have extended the window of fertility significantly, making it possible to conceive well into the mid-40s. For many doctors, however, the cutoff point is around age 45, a time when many believe a woman’s eggs are no longer healthy enough for a normal conception -- although normal pregnancies can and do occur at this age.

    Moreover, with the inception of donor eggs -- those produced and provided by a younger, more fertile female -- a woman could actually carry a child and give birth well into her 60s and beyond, depending on her individual health status. Although this is possible, it is not necessarily a recommended or accepted practice.

  • How often should a woman be tested for a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and what tests does she need?
  • Answer:

    If you are sexually active, you should be tested for chlamydia every year through l age 25. If you are older than 25, testing should be based on your risk profile -- the more partners you have, the greater your risk. Regardless of your age before starting a new relationship both you and your potential partner should be tested for all major STDs including chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, genital herpes, syphillis, and HPV (human papilloma virus), a sexually transmitted cancer. You should also be tested anytime symptoms arise, including genital itching, burning or pain, abnormal and particularly odorous discharge, or the presence of any lumps, bumps, or rashes.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on October 14, 2014

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