Sexual Health Requirements by the Ages

by Alisha Bridges Patient Advocate

Many people believe that sexual and reproductive health shouldn't be a concern until one engages in the act of sex, but this is far from the truth. There are several preventive measures one should take before having sex. In fact, at various ages throughout your life, you may need certain tests, procedures, and vaccines related to your sexual and reproductive health. Read on to learn more.

A woman lies back on an exam table before a pelvic exam.

At what age should a young woman visit the gynecologist?

I didn’t visit the gynecologist until I started having sex in my early 20s. I had always assumed there was no need to visit the gynecologist unless I was sexually active. To my surprise, my assumption was wrong. According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), girls should make their first visit to this specialist between the ages of 13 and 15.

An ob-gyn speaks to a patient, writing on a chart.

What to expect during the first visit

During this visit, the doctor will ask a series of questions concerning the teen’s physical health, sexual history (if applicable), and family history. Usually, the doctor doesn't need to do a pelvic exam at this first visit unless you are experiencing problematic symptoms. If the teen is sexually active, a pelvic exam and an STD test may be performed. In some states, it’s legal for a teen to seek treatment on her own; in others, a guardian must be notified.

Gynecologist performing a pelvic exam.

At what age should a young woman receive cervical cancer screening?

Twenty-one years old is the magic number to begin this screening. A Pap test (also known as a Pap smear) is a test that looks for abnormalities in the cervical cells, which may indicate cervical cancer. Women aged 21-29 should have this test every three years, ACOG says. Women 30-65 should have the test, along with a test for human papillomavirus (HPV), every five years, although it is acceptable to just have the Pap test alone every three years.

Doctor holds a speculum.

What to expect during cervical cancer screening

During cervical cancer screening, you will receive a Pap test. This is a quick procedure in which you'll lie on an exam table and your doctor will use a speculum to open your vagina and get a clear view of the cervix. They will use a brush to take a sample of cells from the cervix and send them off to be tested for abnormalites. This procedure shouldn't hurt, but it may be a bit uncomfortable.

A person holds a birth control pill pack.

When should a woman take birth control?

If needed, a young woman can start taking oral birth control as soon as she starts her period, which is around age 12. Birth control pills are not just for people who are sexually active. This type of contraceptive can be given to a girl for issues regarding irregular or painful periods, to help treat acne, to assist with issues related to polycystic ovary syndrome, and much more.

A doctor writes on a prescription pad.

What to expect when looking into birth control

There are a variety of medical birth control options to choose from. But as with any of these options there will be risk associated with them. Depending on what state teens live in, they may be able to receive birth control without parental consent. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “21 states and the District of Columbia explicitly allow all minors to consent to contraceptive services.”

A doctor administers a vaccine.

At what age should a person receive the HPV vaccine?

The HPV vaccine is a vaccine that helps protect people from strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer and warts. In 2008, it was only approved for girls, but a year later it was also approved for boys. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends children ages 11-12 receive the vaccine.

Doctor gives a shot.

What to expect when you get an HPV vaccine

The CDC states that HPV vaccines are given as a series of three shots over 6 months. It’s important to know that the cutoff age for receiving the vaccine is 26.

Male patient speaks to doctor.

At what age should a male receive a prostate exam?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that one out of seven men will end up with prostate cancer in his lifetime. But when should one start to be tested? African-American men are at a higher risk for prostate cancer and should begin exams start around 40 years old; for all other men, 50 is the recommended age.

Doctor puts on a glove.

What to expect during a prostate exam

For a lot of men, screenings for prostate cancer can be a bit uncomfortable and embarrassing. The ACS states the most common types of prostate cancer screenings include a digital rectal exam and a blood test. For the blood test, the doctor will draw blood and test for prostate-specific antigens that indicate cancer. The rectal exam requires the doctor feel for lumps and bumps within the anus.

Technician looks at a screen.

At what age should a woman receive a mammogram?

Breast cancer runs in my family, therefore a doctor recommended I receive a mammogram now, in my late 20s. This procedure tests women for breast cancer. Generally speaking, though, the ACS suggests a woman should have this test done at least once a year starting at age 40, and every two years after she turns 55.

Mammogram machine.

What to expect during a mammogram

A mammogram is a low-energy X-ray of the breast to determine abnormalities such as lumps that could be potentially life-threatening. For the test, a mammogram technician places a woman’s breast between the two plates of the mammography machine, which then squeeze together so X-rays of the inside the breast can be captured. It is required that a woman not use deodorant before her exam.

Alisha Bridges
Meet Our Writer
Alisha Bridges

Alisha Bridges has dealt with psoriasis since 7 years old after a bad case of chicken pox triggered her disease to spread on over 90% of her body. For years she hid in shame afraid of what people would think of such a visible disease. She has suffered from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks due to psoriasis. Years ago Alisha wrote a letter entitled “My Suicide Letter.” The letter was not about actually killing herself but killing parts of her like low self-esteem, fear, and shame so she could truly live to her fullest potential. This proclamation catapulted her into psoriasis and patient advocacy. Following this letter she created a blog entitled Being Me In My Own Skin where she gives intimate details of what it’s like to live with psoriasis. Alisha is a community ambassador for the National Psoriasis Foundation and has served her community in countless ways to help give a better understanding of what’s it’s like to live with psoriasis. Her life motto is the following: “My purpose is to change the hearts of people by creating empathy and compassion for those the least understood through transparency of self, patient advocacy, and dermatology.” Alisha is also a Social Ambassador for the HealthCentral Skin Health Facebook page.