6 Self-Checks Every Woman Should Do—and When
These at-home measures can help you keep your health on track.
Physical and gynecological exams with a medical professional are crucial to keeping you healthy, but those exams typically only happen once a year. What else could you be doing on your own to keep your health on track? Plenty! Here are some easy health checks you can do yourself from the comfort of your own home.
Occasionally to once a month
Official guidelines no longer recommend that women do monthly breast self-exams at home, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore your breasts. “There was concern about women feeling reassured based on normal self-exams,” says Earlexia M. Norwood, MD, service chief for family medicine at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan, “but ‘I don’t feel anything’ doesn’t mean there’s nothing there.”
Ideally, women should be familiar with their breasts—so they can notice if there are any changes—and stay up-to-date with exams from their doctor as well as any recommended screening tests, like mammograms.
If a monthly self-exam works for you, keep it up. Otherwise, periodically feeling around while taking off your bra or washing in the shower should suffice. Look for any changes in your breasts, as well as any dimpling, puckering, redness, swelling, rash, or pain.
Once a month
Skin cancer may be the most common type of cancer in the U.S., but it’s also one of the easiest to see. That means regular skin self-exams may actually save your life. If caught early, skin cancers are usually treatable and even curable. Most people could benefit from self-exams, but they’re especially important for people who are fair-skinned, red-haired, have multiple moles, or who have had a precancerous or cancerous lesion in the past, says Dr. Norwood.
You’ll need a full-length mirror along with a hand-held mirror, or a willing friend or family member to help you. The exam should cover every inch of your body, even areas that aren’t exposed to the sun, like your scalp (use a comb or blow dryer to expose all the sections of your head), your hands (even under your fingernails), under your breasts, and even your genitals and the soles of your feet.
Every three to four months
Your waistline may be a better gauge of your health and future health risks than numbers on a scale or body mass index. Why? Fat around your belly is a bigger risk factor when it comes to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes than fat gathered at other places in your body. “An apple shape versus pear shape increases risk,” says Dr. Norwood.
In general, women are healthiest when their waist size is less than 35 inches. If your waist is bigger than that, think about exercise and eating changes that can help reduce it. Then measure again in three or four months, Dr. Norwood suggests. Sometimes the scale doesn’t change but clothes fit better. “That’s the decrease in the fat occurring around the waist and thighs,” she says. “You want to see a decrease in inches because it’s giving you more muscle tone than fat,” and muscle burns more calories.
Once a month
A too-fast heart rate or pulse can be a sign of an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), atrial fibrillation (a heart-rhythm abnormality), or other heart issues. And there’s a low-tech way to monitor it: by checking your pulse. Put your index finger and your third finger on the side of your neck or on your wrist and count the number of beats in 15 seconds. Multiply that by four and you have your heart rate.
A normal resting heart rate is between 60 and 100. “If it’s running in the 110s or 120s, that’s not normal,” says Dr. Norwood. Look for a pattern over time, say once a month, rather than jumping to conclusions based on one reading.
Once a year
Measuring your height at least once a year is a simple way to keep tabs on how healthy your bones are. “A loss of height means that you’re losing bone,” says Dr. Norwood, and that could be an early sign of osteoporosis.
How to keep your bones strong? Make sure you’re getting enough calcium through dairy products, calcium-fortified orange juice, and green, leafy veggies like spinach and broccoli, and get plenty of weight-bearing exercise. “All exercise is not equal when it comes to bone health,” says Dr. Norwood. “Swimming is great for your heart, but it does not help your bones. You want to exercise against gravity.” That means walking, running, jogging, and lifting weights.
Every one to two weeks if you’re at risk
Regular blood pressure readings can give you a window into your current and future health. “Someone who is healthy but who has had occasionally elevated blood pressure readings but no diagnosis of hypertension, or who has hypertension risk factors, should do episodic monitoring,” Dr. Norwood says.
Start by making sure you get the right equipment to take your blood pressure at home. Dr. Norwood recommends Omron blood pressure cuffs, but you can also get cuffs for your finger, wrist, or even thigh. “The larger the vessel, the more reliable the reading,” says Dr. Norwood. Once you have a machine picked out, take it to your doctor so she can check that blood pressure reading against the machine in the office. (Get your blood pressure and your blood pressure machine checked out at least yearly in your doctor’s office, Dr. Norwood adds.)
At home, find a quiet seat and rest for five minutes before checking your pressure. Avoid caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, and exercise for 30 minutes beforehand, as all of these can skew your readings. Try to do the check at the same time of day whenever you test. Sit straight up with your feet on the floor and your legs uncrossed and make sure the cuff isn’t over any clothing.
Normal numbers are a systolic pressure (top number) of less than 120 and diastolic pressure (bottom number of less than 80). If the numbers come back high once, don’t panic; wait a few minutes and try again. Keep track of your numbers in a journal (some blood pressure monitors record the numbers for you) so you can see trends over time.