Maturing from girlhood to womanhood is an exciting and challenging phase of life. Now is the time to take charge of your health, understand those changes, be on the look out for red flags and establish good health habits for a lifetime.

Your first period

Some key issues for a woman during this time of life include getting your first period, having your first pelvic exam, avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, developing healthy eating habits, avoiding risky behaviors that involve alcohol, tobacco and other drugs and learning how to feel good about yourself.

Your breasts begin to grow, you develop body hair and you notice that you seem to be taller than you were yesterday. These are all signs of puberty. You are starting to mature. A girl's first period is a major event and it typically happens around the age 13, but can happen when you are nine or 17. Your period, or menstruation, is the monthly shedding of the lining of your uterus when no pregnancy has occurred. The average period lasts four to six days. Hormonal changes before and during can make you feel uncomfortable. When symptoms are severe and recur with each menstrual period, they are classified as premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Some of the most common physical and emotional PMS symptoms include:

  • irritability— anxiety and/or depression
  • weight gain
  • bloating and water weight gain
  • food cravings
  • headaches
  • joint, muscle or back aches

To ease the symptoms of PMS:

— add more calcium and vitamin D to your diet by consuming more low-fat dairy products or by taking a calcium supplement daily. Good sources of dietary calcium include: low-fat milk and diary products, broccoli, dark greens like turnip greens, cooked collards, salmon and sardines, tofu and other soy products, almonds and calcium-fortified orange and grapefruit juice. Vitamin D is available from fortified milk and products made from fortified milk; supplements, including multivitamins with vitamin D and calcium supplements with vitamin D; sun-exposed skin

— eat more complex carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, grains and beans

— decrease the amount of refined sugar you eat

— avoid or cut back on caffeine and nicotine

— avoid alcohol, if you are over 21. (It is not only illegal for anyone under age of 21 to be drinking, it is also very dangerous.)

— consume less salt or foods high in sodium; eat fewer high-salt snacks and drink more water

— avoid sodas and drink natural diuretics such as herbal teas and water

— keep moving; just by walking 20 to 30 minutes three times a week you can increase endorphin and serotonin production in the brain giving you more energy and a mood lift, decrease stress and anxiety and improve your sleep

Your first pelvic exam

Your first pelvic exam is an important step in taking charge of your health. Obstetricians and/or gynecologists (OB/GYNs) are usually the type of health care professional you would see, but a family doctor, nurse practitioners, general internists and other specialists also perform these examinations. Even if you're not having sex, you need to have this checkup. During this exam, a health care professional looks and feels your pelvic area for health problems. A Pap test, which is used to detect abnormalities in your cervix that may be cancerous, may or may not be part of your first pelvic exam. Cervical cancer can develop whether you are sexually active or not. A breast exam may also be part of this visit. Your health care professional will look and feel your breasts for anything abnormal and show you how to do a breast self-exam at home.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women have their first Pap test within three years after they begin having sex or at age 21, whichever happens first. You should have a pelvic exam and a Pap test once a year, until you have had two or three consecutive Pap tests with normal results; then, Pap tests may be scheduled less often – every three years, for example.

If you are sexually active, ask your health care professional if screening tests for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be done at your first visit. It's important to be tested for STDs, if you are sexually active, even if you don't have symptoms. Many STDs, chlamydia and gonorrhea, for example, don't cause symptoms until infections are advanced. Identifying and treating STDs early can help prevent long-term reproductive health problems, like infertility, from developing.

Build strong bones

Osteoporosis is a mostly preventable and treatable disease that thins and weakens your bones. As many as eight million American women have osteoporosis, and another 13 to 17 million have low bone density at the hip, putting them at risk for developing the disease. Now is the time of life to make your bones strong. Here are three simple steps to prevent osteoporosis:

  • Increase the amount of calcium and vitamin D in your diet: 1,300 mg of calcium daily for girls age nine to 18 (one, 8-ounce glass of milk, soy milk or calcium-fortified orange juice contains approximately 300 mg of calcium) 1,000 mg calcium daily for the average woman age 19 to 50 500 mg calcium daily for women age 65 or older
  • Do weight-bearing exercise, such as brisk walking, regularly
  • If you smoke, quit, or ask a health care professional about how to go about quitting.