Adults, Be Smart About Your Annual Physical
For many of us, the shift from summer to fall represents a fresh start. The change of season can be an ideal time to focus more fully on your health and to develop habits that will help you stay healthy, including getting your annual physical exam.
Never underestimate the benefits of your annual checkup: It’s your chance as a patient to get one solid block of time alone with your doctor, when you can ask all the questions about your health that you’re wondering about and get a personalized care plan that can keep you healthy. According to some medical experts, those annual visits also improve the detection of early illness, which could help prevent complications down the line.
In addition to the opportunity to screen for medical conditions, your annual physical gives your primary care provider the chance to encourage you to develop healthy habits. He or she can help you to identify and address various high-risk behaviors and also screen for important lifestyle issues, including diet, exercise, alcohol and tobacco use, sexual health, childbirth plans, depression, violence or abuse—even safety precautions, like using sunscreen and wearing seat belts in cars or helmets on bikes and motorcycles.
What You Should Expect
A patient’s medical history and concerns will guide which parts of the physical exam your doctor will perform. But depending on your age and personal risks, you may expect the following:
- Medical history—including health habits; vaccinations; previous illnesses; surgeries; allergies; family history of diseases; and all medications you currently take, including vitamins, natural remedies and over-the-counter drugs.
- Vital sign checks—including blood pressure and usually heart rate and weight checks
- Eyes, ears, nose, throat and thyroid gland may be examined
- Heart and lung exam
- Abdominal exam
- Prostate exam (for men)—rectal exam for men age 50 and older to detect enlargement or suspicious lumps.
- Breast and pelvic exam (for women)—your doctor examines your breasts for suspicious lumps and may perform a pelvic exam or a Pap test to screen for infections or gynecologic cancer (Read more about pelvic exams below.)
More on Preventive Screenings and Immunizations
Timely medical screenings and immunizations are another important component of your annual visit and are tailored to your age, sex, symptoms and medical history. Among the screenings and shots your physician may administer or recommend the following:
Males and Females
- Blood pressure
- Body mass index (calculation based on height and weight)
- Cholesterol screening
- Diabetes screening
- Mental health screening
- Immunizations: hepatitis A; hepatitis B; herpes zoster (shingles); HPV; influenza (flu); measles, mumps, rubella; pneumococcal conjugate (pneumonia); tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap); varicella (chickenpox); meningococcal (meningitis)
- Sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and chlamydia
- Colon cancer screening (Men and women are usually referred to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy at age 45.)
- Cervical cancer screening (Pap test)
- Breast cancer screening (breast exam and mammogram)
- Screening for osteoporosis (bone mineral density exam)
- Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test
For details and recommended schedules, visit the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force website, www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/adultrec.htm.
About Pelvic Exams
In general, women should begin having a pelvic exam annually starting at age 21. “We prefer women to wait until age 21, unless there is abnormal bleeding, discharge or pain,” says Darragh Flynn, MD, a Brown & Toland gynecologist.
During a pelvic exam, physicians may look for signs and symptoms of conditions such as sexually transmitted infections, uterine fibroid or early-stage cancer. Pap smears, for instance, help detect cervical cancer.
According to recently updated national guidelines, however, you don’t necessarily need a Pap smear at every annual pelvic exam. Why? Cervical cancer is relatively slow growing and many cervical cell changes go away on their own. Doing a Pap smear every several years can still allow doctors time to catch abnormal changes and prevent them from becoming cervical cancer. Women at high risk for cervical cancer may still need annual screenings. Ask your doctor which schedule is best for you.