Take Control of Your Health in Your 20s
Published December 2021
Health Care Is Part of Adulting
Throughout childhood, adults made decisions about your health care — which physician to see, when to get vaccines, how often to have checkups. Now, you’ve hit your 20s, and you’re adulting. You’re too old for your pediatrician, and it’s up to you to establish a plan for your health care. Shawn Brickner, MD, internal medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine, offers some advice to stay proactive when it comes to your health.
1. Make sure to see a physician on a regular basis. After you stop seeing your pediatrician, it’s important to find a regular physician to visit once a year. Most college students only see a physician when they’re feeling sick or to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Dr. Brickner recommends that young people see a physician regularly for preventive medicine. Specifically:
- Women should make sure to get a pap smear every three years after turning 21 to screen for cervical cancer.
- Men, especially those ages 18 to 35, should make sure to get screened regularly for testicular cancer, since they are at the highest risk.
2. Decisions you make now can help you later, so even though you’re of legal age, don’t pick up that cigarette. Chances are, if you refrain from smoking when you’re young, you will never pick up the bad habit. The same goes for marijuana. Most people don’t realize that smoking marijuana can cause just as many health problems as regular cigarettes: specifically, cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In terms of carcinogens (substances that can cause cancer), one marijuana cigarette is equivalent to 10 tobacco cigarettes.
3. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Seriously. If you’re thinking about staying up all night cramming for that big exam, think again. Sleep is restorative, so you’re actually better off getting a full night’s sleep. In addition, sleep can help you lose weight and lower blood pressure. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, Dr. Brickner recommends 30 minutes of screen-free time before bed.
4. Wear sunscreen every day (even when it’s cloudy). The sun’s rays can be damaging to your skin, even on a cloudy day. Not only will sunscreen help prevent you from getting sunburned today, it can also help prevent you from developing wrinkles and skin cancer when you’re older. But don’t waste your money on anything higher than SPF 30. According to Dr. Brickner, SPF 50 protects your skin less than one percent more than SPF 30, even though the price difference is generally substantial.
5. Know your pain meds. You may think acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and ibuprofen (Advil® and Motrin®) are the same, but there are a few key differences. Both treat fevers and pain, but ibuprofen is better for inflammatory pain, which can result from sports injuries, for example. The most important difference between acetaminophen and ibuprofen is how your body processes them. Ibuprofen is metabolized through your kidneys, while acetaminophen is metabolized through your liver. So if you’re planning on drinking alcohol, stick to ibuprofen to limit potential liver damage.
6. Stay up to date on your vaccines. In college, many students live in close quarters, so it’s important to protect yourself from easily transmittable diseases.
- Get a flu shot every year.
- Double-check that your tetanus shot is current (you only need to get one every 10 years).
- If you are or plan to be sexually active, get an HPV vaccine. Today’s technology is so advanced that the current HPV vaccine not only protects against cervical cancer, but it also helps protect against oral cancers as well, which means men need it just as much as women.
- Several vaccines are available to prevent types of bacterial meningitis. These vaccines are recommended for infants and children. Two doses at ages 11 through 18 are also recommended.
- If you’re going abroad, make sure to check if you need any additional vaccines.
Just because you read it on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s tempting to search symptoms online or go to a medical website to self-diagnose, but Dr. Brickner urges you to seek advice from a licensed physician if you have any health concerns.