There's no substitute for going to the doctor. But it's critical to observe your body in between checkups so that you can ask the right questions and keep an eye on any changes as they happen. That's why it's great to give yourself your own at home health checkups between visits. It's another tool in your toolkit to taking care of your body, and it's especially good to start the habit when you're young.
"Performing these exams will be able to alert you to any changes your body is going through, for better or worse," health and wellness coach Caleb Backe tells Bustle. "Being aware of your body and its regular processes will make you a lot wiser in the long and short-term. Early discovery is one of the most crucial points for any disease or condition, so it is best to self-examine yourself on a regular basis (monthly is the norm). If you encounter anything unusual, get to a physician." You may be surprised how much you have to learn about the ways your body works.
If you notice anything, always follow through. Doctors and other healthcare providers are there to help, and they often don't know what they're helping with unless you bring it up first. Learning what to talk to your doctor about is crucial for taking care of yourself. But you have to get to know your body first.
These are six at-home self-exams you should be doing on yourself, according to experts.
1Examine Your Breasts
Everyone has breasts and everyone should learn to check theirs out for lumps and bumps. Family doctor and former ER doctor Daliah Wachs, M.D., tells Bustle that, although the United States Preventative Services Task Force does not recommend these exams because they may lead to biopsies of harmless abnormalities, she believes people should know their bodies and trust what they observe. So try it out.
"In the shower, or lying down at night, once a month (after one's period — since before we may be more lumpy) start under the arm with two fingers and with circular motions move consistently around the breast tissue," Dr. Wachs says. "A mass may be soft or a hard lump and should prompt a medical evaluation. Continue circularly palpating until you get down to the nipple, then slightly squeeze to see if fluid is expressed." If you see blood, that is a sign you should make an appointment with your doctor.
2Check Your Mouth
Have you ever really looked into your own mouth? Turns out, it's a good idea, especially if you've ever been a smoker (but everyone should do it). "For this one, you will need a good mirror and a brighter light than usual," Backe says. "I found that a makeup mirror with a light is great for this type of exam. Start with your lips. Take a look at them and their color, feel their texture. Pull your lips apart, starting with the upper one. Reveal your upper gums and take a good look. Anything out of the ordinary? Anything sensitive? Anything too red? Repeat with the lower lip. Now say 'AH!' and let that light shine on the surface and roof of your mouth. Notice any discolorations? Anything new and unusual? Finally, check out your tongue, top and bottom. Again, make sure to note if there are any changes to color, texture, [or] sores."
Anything out of the ordinary? If so, make an appointment with your dentist to get things checked out. It's always better to be safe than sorry.
3Observe Your Skin
While it's crucial to know the signs of skin cancer in general, you have to actually take a look at your skin once and a while to make sure nothing bad is going. Plus, there's way more issues that could manifest on your skin than melanoma alone. To observe any moles, Dr. Wachs (and the Mayo Clinic) suggests the ABCDEs.
"A" is for asymmetry. "Are both sides of the mole equal when you draw an imaginary line through it?" Dr. Wachs says. Symmetrically is a sign of a benign mole. "B" is for border. "Is the border smooth or irregular?" asks Dr. Wachs. A smooth border is a good sign, an irregular one is worth noting. "C" is for color. "Is the color uniform like a freckle or variegated, marbled?" Dr. Wachs says. Most moles are uniform, so keep an eye on irregularly colored ones. "D" is for diameter. "Is it bigger 1 cm ( a pencil eraser)?" asks Dr. Wachs. If so, keep that in mind. "E" is for "evolving or elevating," according to Dr. Wachs. Either of those symptoms indicate a possibility that it's cancerous. "F" means fast, Dr. Wachs says. Take note if a mole is growing fast.
If you do find an abnormal mole, Dr. Wachs suggests checking for basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, which can each be identified by specific characteristics. If you have any concerns, make an appointment with your doctor ASAP.
4Get To Know Your Genitals
Whatever your genitals, you should get to know it well. According to the University of Michigan, a vaginal self-exam (VSE) is critical to get to know your body and check for vaginal sores, abnormal discharge, or other problems, such as genital warts. All you need is good lighting and a mirror, and to check at a time of the month that you're not on your period. Just sit down somewhere comfortable with your back supported with pillows. Then bend your knees, place your feet near your butt, and lean backwards with your legs apart like you do at the gynecologist. Once you've got the mirror propped up, you can check your vulva, clitoris, vagina, urethra, and anus for abnormalities.
If you want to look further into what's going on with your vagina, or check out your cervix, the Feminist Women's Health Center, which operates clinics in Washington State, suggests learning how to do a self-exam with a mirror, a speculum, and some water-based lubricant.
And if you have a penis, checking yourself for testicular cancer is also a good idea. This way, you can keep on top of your health, and alert your doctor to any issues that may arise.
5Look At Your Poop
It may seem uncouth, but it's really important to keep an eye on your poop. Your poop actually tells you a whole lot about your overall health, from indicating what vitamins you may need, to hinting at a more serious condition.
So, from now on when you go, keep an eye on what comes out. "Peek at your poop! If it's dark, black, or [there's] blood seen, see a medical provider," Dr. Wachs says. "[It] could be an ulcer or GI bleed." Shying away from bathroom issues can be a serious health risk, so get comfortable getting to know what comes out of you, and don't be afraid to talk to your doctor about it.
6Keep An Eye On Your Hair
Last but not least, you shouldn't forget about your hair. Keeping an eye on changes in your hair is about much more than spotting your first gray strand. Hair changes could be due to medication side effects, mental health conditions, and more. So observe what's going on up there.
"This is an exam you’ve probably performed many times, though you may not have attributed special significance to it," Backe says. "Is hair piling up at your drain? Is your comb taking more than usual amounts of hair off your scalp? If you begin to notice too much hair coming out, it could just be age and hormones, but it could also indicate certain mental or physical issues." Talk to your doctor, as always, if things start to change.
Taking care of your health is a lifelong pursuit, so don't get too overwhelmed now. Examining yourself at home is a little habit to build that can help your health down the line. And at the very least, it's a good way to be proactive about loving your body in concrete ways. Just don't skip that annual checkup.