For instance, guidelines now say that women only need a pap smear once every three years, so does that mean we can cut back on our annual OB/GYN exams, too? Do you actually need to get a skin-cancer check if you don’t see any suspicious moles? And are routine physicals really a waste of time, as some doctors believe?
Pap smears and teeth cleanings may be a drag, but they’re just as important to your self-care routine as new-moon circles and Epsom salt baths.
To find out, I asked pros from an array of medical disciplines—primary care, gynecology, dermatology, dentistry, and mental health—to tell me exactly how often you should be checking in with them if you’re otherwise healthy. The verdict? In most cases, they agreed that regular preventative exams are important, and that you shouldn’t wait until you’re experiencing scary symptoms to start building a relationship with your care team.
So pull up your scheduling app of choice and start making some appointments based on the advice that follows. Because, let’s be real—pap smears and teeth cleanings may be a drag, but they’re just as important to your self-care routine as new-moon circles and Epsom salt baths.
Keep reading to find out exactly how often you should be visiting your doctor for routine care.
Okay, be honest: When was the last time you had a check-up from your primary care doctor? If your mind’s drifting back to your high-school sports physical—or if you don’t even have a primary care doctor (like I didn’t until the age of, um, 34)—now is a perfect time to schedule a visit.
Why is it important? According to One Medical’s Brian Secemsky, MD, it’ll allow you to get a baseline reading on your health, ask any nagging questions, and start to build trust with a clinician. That way, if you do experience concerning symptoms in the future, you can call someone who’s already clued in to your medical history.
Expect your doctor to delve into every aspect of wellness during your first appointment. “A routine checkup usually involves a physical examination and covers all age- and gender-appropriate screenings and vaccines, plus check-ins on mental health, nutrition, exercise, and general wellness,” says Dr. Secemsky. While blood panels and other lab tests may be part of the deal, he adds, they aren’t required for every person, so it’s up to your doctor to decide what’s going to be right for you.
At the end of the visit, your MD should also give you some indication of when you should schedule your next routine exam, says Dr. Secemsky—and, again, this is going to be totally different for everyone. “It may be one year to several years out, depending on the health and wellness of the individual person,” he says. (And, conversely, if your doctor picks up on something that needs monitoring, don’t be surprised if he or she wants you to come back sooner.)
This one’s a bit more straightforward—once you’re sexually active or have turned 21 years old, you should see your gynecologist annually for a pelvic exam and STD testing, says Mount Sinai Hospital’s Charles Ascher-Walsh, MD. (Yes, that second part goes for those in committed relationships as well. “You can never know for sure that your partner has been faithful,” Dr. Ascher-Walsh points out—and not all STDs come with symptoms.)
Be prepared not to get a pap smear at every exam, even if that was the case for you in the past. “If you have a history of normal pap smears, you can get one every three years,” says Dr. Ascher-Walsh. “If HPV [screening] is also included in the pap and is normal, you can get a pap every five years.”
Your doctor generally won’t recommend breast cancer screenings until age 40, he says—although the age you start and the frequency of screenings will vary based on your family history and your doctor’s discretion. That said, Dr. Ascher-Walsh recommends that every woman do monthly breast self-exams (if you don't remember how, ask your doc for a refresher), adding that you should see your doctor for any gynecological issue that persists for longer than six weeks or is debilitating in any way.
So you think that just because you don’t have any scary-looking moles—or a chronic condition like acne or psoriasis—you don’t need to see a dermatologist? Not so, says Jacqueline Schaffer, MD.
“Annual exams are crucial to help spot any signs of skin cancer,” she stresses. After all, a doctor is trained to pick up on subtle signs of trouble that you might miss. “With yearly visits, your dermatologist is able to compare any changes in a mole, reddish scaly patches, or any type of discoloration on the skin from your previous exam.”
If you’ve got a family history of skin cancer, your derm may want to see you more than once a year—and there are also some less obvious reasons why he or she may want you to schedule regular appointments, such as hair loss or a change in nail growth. (Again, the frequency of these visits is totally individualized.)
Perhaps surprisingly, you should probably be clocking more face time with your dentist than any other medical pro. According to Beverly Hills-based dentist Dustin Cohen, DDS, most adults should be getting their teeth cleaned three to four times a year.
“Frequent cleanings help to reduce the overall bacterial load in your mouth, leading to less gum bleeding and fewer cavities,” he explains. “Bleeding gums is a sign of chronic inflammation in your mouth, which has been linked to other systemic inflammatory diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.” (So yeah, your mom wasn't kidding when she said brushing and flossing are a big deal.)
On top of that, you should have a full dental exam with x-rays annually, at minimum. And don’t be afraid to come back sooner if you’re feeling pain, tooth sensitivity, or a lump that doesn’t go away within two weeks. “Many issues can be identified in the earliest stages, allowing for a more simplified treatment,” says Dr. Cohen. “More simple treatments are generally less expensive, less painful, and require less time in the dental office.” Can’t argue with that.
No, you don't automatically need to put this one in your calendar. But how do you know if you should be seeing a mental health pro? “You should always seek help if your symptoms include thoughts of harming yourself or others—or if your symptoms are interfering with your ability to work, sleep, eat, go to school, or maintain relationships,” says Sepideh Saremi, LCSW, of Los Angeles’ Run Walk Talk.
Once you’ve made a decision to see someone, how often you visit will be based on the severity of your symptoms and your therapist’s method. “For a patient who is suffering from mild anxiety, for instance, it may be sufficient to go to therapy once a week,” says Saremi. “For someone who is actively self-harming, seeing a therapist a few times a week or even daily may be more appropriate.” (She adds that if this isn't financially feasible, a good therapist will help you create a treatment plan you can afford.)
As you start to feel better, says Saremi, you can come in less frequently or on an as-needed basis. But don’t rush the process—if this era of mental-health realness has taught us anything, it’s that having support will get you way farther than struggling through it alone.
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