With so many tests out there, it can be hard to keep track of what you need and when. One of the best ways to make sure you’re up on your preventive care is to see your doctor every year. That way you’ll also build a relationship, so that your doctor knows you and your medical history better if you have a problem in the future.
Here’s a short list of the most common preventive care and screenings — this is not a comprehensive list, and you may need additional tests or vaccines. Based on your conversation with your doctor, you might need these common exams or care at different intervals than most people might.
Who: Everyone How often: Varies by your needs
Depending on your age and sex, you’ll need different preventive care or screening exams at different time intervals, like a flu shot every year or a colonoscopy every 10 years.
If you’re relatively young and healthy, you typically won’t have a long list of recommended screenings and may not need to visit every year. It might be a good idea to see your doctor and ask how often you should schedule return wellness visits.
Who: Everyone How often: Varies by age
The American Association of Ophthalmologists (they’re eye MDs) says that you should have medical eye exams more often as you get older. If you have no signs or risk factors for eye problems, they recommend:
- A baseline exam at age 40
- Every two to every four years between ages 40 and 54
- Every one to three years between ages 55 and 64
- Every one to two years for people age 65+
Depending on your vision, eye health, and other conditions like diabetes, you might need checkups more often or starting at an earlier age. If you wear glasses or contacts, you can also have vision checks at your optometrist more often.
Who: Everyone How often: Varies by your needs
Turns out, there’s no one-size rule for everyone. You and your dentist should decide what’s right for you, whether it’s every six months, every year, or some other amount of time.
That said, do check with your dentist anytime you have a toothache, teeth that are sensitive to heat or cold, or signs of gum disease (such as swollen and tender gums, bleeding during brushing, loose teeth, or gums that are pulling away from teeth). If you’re pregnant, you should continue to get regular dental exams.
Who: Everyone 6 months and up How often: Every year
- Everyone ages 6 months and up should get an annual vaccine (unless your doctor says otherwise).
- This year experts say you should not get the nasal spray; at least one study found it doesn’t seem to work.
- Those over 65 can get a special higher-dose vaccine, only available as a shot.
- Pregnant women should only get the shot (not the nasal spray).
Who: Everyone How often: Booster every 10 years (after full primary series)
You’ll want to check your vaccination records for this. The childhood vaccine against these three diseases is called DTaP and is a five-shot series. It’s followed by a booster of the adult version (Tdap), ideally at age 11 or 12.
- If you’ve had all of these (DTaP series plus a Tdap), you just need a Td booster every 10 years.
- If you completed the childhood series but have not had the adult version (Tdap), you should get one even if you had a recent tetanus or Td vaccine.
- If you never completed your childhood DTaP vaccine series (or aren't sure), you'll need a three-dose “primary” series to catch up and build immunity. One of the three shots should be a Tdap; check with your doctor on the details and timing.
Tdap is very important for health care workers and anyone in close contact with a baby less than 12 months old. Pregnant women should get one dose of Tdap during each pregnancy to protect their newborns against pertussis.
Blood pressure check
Who: Everyone 18 and over How often: As often as your doctor decides
- If you’re 40 or over or at greater risk for high blood pressure, you should check it each year. Overweight people and African Americans may be at greater risk, as well as anyone with high-normal blood pressure (upper number 130 to 139 or lower number 85 to 89).
- If you’re 18 to 39 and your blood pressure is under 130/85, you may be able to go three to five years before checking it again (as long as you don’t have risk factors).
- If you have hypertension — 140/90 or higher — your doctor will probably want to check it more often and talk about a personalized plan for getting your numbers lower.
Who: Everyone 20 and over How often: As often as your doctor decides
Your doctor may want to test you starting at age 20 if you have risk factors for heart disease. Testing is especially important for:
- All men age 35 and over
- Women who are age 45 and over who have some risk for heart disease
Who: Everyone ages 40 to 70 and overweight How often: As often as your doctor decides
In addition to your weight, your doctor may consider your blood pressure, family history, and other factors when deciding how often to check your blood sugar (high levels can be a sign of diabetes).
Cervical cancer screening (Pap test)
Who: Women 21 to 65 How often: Every three to five years
- The latest guidelines recommend a first Pap at age 21.
- Between ages 21 to 65, women at average risk of cervical cancer should have a Pap every three years. Women over 65 who have had adequate screenings generally don’t need regular testing unless they’re at high risk of cervical cancer.
- At age 30, you can choose to get an HPV DNA test along with your Pap; this lets you go five years between tests. (Some strains of human papillomavirus or HPV cause almost all cases of cervical cancer.) The HPV test alone is not a reliable screening test for cervical cancer, so you can’t avoid the Pap entirely.
Breast cancer screening (mammogram)
Who: Women 50 to 74; others if needed How often: Every two years or as often as your doctor decides
- According to the US Preventive Services Task Force, women at average risk of breast cancer only need mammograms every two years from ages 50 to 74.
- Women under 50 should talk with their doctors and decide when they should start getting screened. (For example, women at higher risk may need to start at a younger age or be screened more often.)
- The latest American Cancer Society guidelines for average-risk women recommend once-a-year mammograms at ages 45 to 54, switching to every two years at 55. Talk to your doctor about what is right for you.
If you ever feel a lump in your breast or notice something unusual, you should have it checked out by your doctor — no matter how old you are or when you had your last mammogram.
Colorectal cancer screening
Who: Everyone ages 50 to 75; others if needed How often: One to 10 years, depending on the type of test
Experts say that all men and women 50 to 75 with an average risk of colorectal cancer should have regular screenings. Adults over age 76 may not need routine screening, so ask your doctor for advice.
People with certain risk factors may need to start before age 50, or be tested more often. Risk factors can include digestive disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn's disease, or ulcerative colitis, or a family history of colorectal cancer.
Who: Everyone 60 and over How often: One time
The CDC recommends a shingles vaccine for adults 60 and over. If your immune system is already weak because of cancer treatment or an immune system disease (such as AIDS), you shouldn’t take the vaccine because it has live virus.
Bone density exam
Who: Women over 65; others if needed How often: As often as your doctor decides
Experts recommend bone density screening for all women age 65 and over. Although men get osteoporosis too, it’s much more common among women, especially older women.
Women under 65 generally don’t need screening unless they have risk factors for osteoporosis. You might need screening at a younger age if you’re a smoker or daily drinker, are very slender, or if your mother broke a bone because of osteoporosis. Generally, white and Asian women have a higher risk of osteoporosis.
Remember, these are just a few of the more common tests — everyone has different needs, so ask your doctor about which ones you should have.
American Academy of Ophthalmology. Policy Statement: Frequency of Ocular Examinations. February 2015. [Link]
American Dental Association Statement on Regular Dental Visits. June 10, 2013. ADA website.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adult Immunization Schedule. CDC website.
US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Published Recommendations. USPSTF website.