by Emily Paulsen

No matter your age, a women's checkup is an important part of caring for your health — and yourself.

Like getting enough sleep or fixing yourself a cup of tea at the end of the day, making time for an annual visit with your healthcare provider is a form of self-care. It might not be as fun as a spa day, but it’s an opportunity to ask questions, identify potential risk factors early and set yourself on a healthy path through life.

A women's checkup can be part of your overall physical with your primary care provider or a separate visit with a women's healthcare specialist. Most health insurance plans cover at least one wellness exam per year at no cost to you. Here are some reasons to schedule a women's checkup and encourage a loved one to do the same.

4 reasons for teens to schedule a checkup

Teens mature and develop at different rates, but generally speaking, a good time for a first women's checkup is between ages 13 and 15. In many cases, this first visit doesn't include a pelvic exam unless deemed necessary. Here are some benefits of women's exams for teens.

1. Better understand your changing body

Like most teens, you probably have a lot of questions about changes in your body. While talking to a parent, older sibling or friend can be great, you may not always feel comfortable discussing certain details with someone you're close to. A healthcare provider can provide unbiased, expert insight so you can better understand your body. For example, they can explain menstruation and offer advice about what to expect and how to deal with heavy bleeding, cramps or other symptoms.

2. Help prevent or treat vaginitis

Vaginitis — vaginal inflammation often due to infection or bacterial imbalance — is common around puberty and may include vaginal discharge. Some discharge is normal between periods, but itchiness, irritation or discharge with a noticeable odor or unusual color or consistency can mean you have an infection. Your healthcare provider can identify the cause of your symptoms and prescribe treatment if necessary. They can also offer tips to avoid infections in the future.

3. Ask questions about sex and gender identity

A visit to a healthcare provider offers an opportunity to learn and talk about important decisions, such as when to have sex and how to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Puberty can also prompt questions about gender identity and sexuality. A healthcare provider trained in these areas can be a safe place for you to ask questions and get resources.

4. Get the HPV vaccine

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted disease, and some types can cause cervical and other types of cancer. HPV is common in people in their late teens or 20s. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting the vaccine before becoming sexually active.

4 reasons for adults to schedule a checkup

Whether you're having sex or not, trying to avoid pregnancy or trying to get pregnant, or menstruating or postmenopausal, a women's checkup should be a routine event for most adult women. You might see your healthcare provider regularly for many other reasons, but here are some to consider.

1. Prevent or identify potential health concerns early

Regular women's checkups can help identify risks or early signs of certain health concerns, including diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoporosis. Your provider may also ask how you're feeling mentally or emotionally to detect early signs of depression or anxiety. This is also a great time to make sure you're up to date on all your vaccines, including tetanus, HPV, RSV, flu and COVID-19. If you haven't already been vaccinated against HPV, talk to your doctor about it at your next visit.

Even serious conditions like cancer can be treatable — and even curable — if detected early. Your healthcare provider will recommend screenings based on your age, your health and family history, and other factors. For example, you should get a Pap smear every three to five years to detect your risk of cervical cancer until at least age 65. Depending on your family history, your doctor may also recommend mammograms to screen for breast cancer or bone density testing to assess your risk of osteoporosis (thinning bones).

In certain cases, you may be eligible for genetic testing to determine your risk of certain inherited health conditions, such as a BRCA gene mutation, which is associated with breast and cervical cancer. You can also get tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

2. Discuss healthy lifestyle decisions

Your annual exam is a great time to learn how a healthy lifestyle — good nutrition, exercise and other habits — can prevent many chronic conditions. This is also an opportunity to talk about anything that might be getting in the way of a healthy sex life, including vaginal dryness or lack of desire.

3. Find a birth control that works for you

If you're trying to avoid pregnancy, you can talk about what birth control methods may work well for you. Sure, you can use certain products or methods without seeing a healthcare provider, but choosing one that's right for you and your partner can be challenging. Someone with special training can help you decide what's safe and effective for your unique circumstances.

4. Talk about how to have a healthy pregnancy

If you're thinking about or trying to get pregnant, visiting your healthcare provider can help set you up for a healthy pregnancy. For example, taking a dietary supplement that contains folic acid is important during the first six to eight weeks of fetal development — before you even know you're pregnant. If you're not using birth control and haven't gotten pregnant, you can discuss fertility treatment options for you or your partner.

A women's health visit is about more than reproductive health. It's about overall health and taking care of yourself so you can live a healthy, full life at any age.

Making time for an annual visit with your healthcare provider is a form of self-care.