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Preventative care appointments are crucial to your health and well-being, and often only occur once a year. Although you may be tempted to skip an annual appointment – especially your annual gynecological exam – this appointment helps to maintain good reproductive and sexual health.
Regular screenings by your gynecologist can also detect health conditions at earlier stages when they can be treated most effectively. Depending on your individual health history, your doctor may suggest other tests as well.
At your annual visit, OB-GYN doctors, myself included, will assess all aspects of your gynecological health. Depending on your age, symptoms, and risk factors, you may need all of these screening tools or only some at each annual visit. So, what does this entail exactly?
A cervical screening used to detect potentially precancerous and cancerous processes in the cervix.
The breast tissue is checked for any lumps or hard spots.
An order for a mammogram may also be provided. This is a medical screening that detects breast cancer and is intended to help with early detection of the cancer.
Examination of symptoms affecting the female reproductive and urinary tract, such as pain, bleeding, discharge, urinary incontinence, or trauma.
The abdomen is pressed on to see if the size of the internal organs feels normal as well as to see if there is any pain when pressure is applied
Discussions about birth control and other suggested screening tests may also occur such as screening for sexually transmitted infections or bone density.
Since the appointment can feel a bit awkward, most are curious about the timing of these appointments. Typically, the appointment itself should only take about 15 -30 minutes to complete and then you’re all done… until next year!
To get the most out of your annual exam, know the dos and don’ts before a Pap smear.
It’s ok to be on your period for your annual exam, however, if your period is particularly heavy that day, check with your doctor first.
Refrain from vaginal intercourse 24 hours prior to your exam. Intercourse prior to your exam can affect your lab tests.
Don’t douche (washing or cleansing the inside of the vagina with water or other fluids) before your exam. If you have vaginal discharge, it’s important for your doctor to evaluate the discharge, which can be impacted through douching.
I always ask my patients:
The date of their last cycle and how long it usually lasts. Knowing this information can help pinpoint where you are in your menstrual cycle, which can affect your vaginal discharge, your breast exam, and things like bloating and cramps. If your periods also seem to be irregular, OB-GYNs can also detect what can be causing these issues.
The date of your last Pap smear and last mammogram. We encourage you to bring a copy of the results if you are seeing a new doctor. This health information can make your visit more effective by providing your medical history.
If they would like to include screening for sexually transmitted infections. For anyone who is sexually active, it’s a good idea to considering screening for STI’s annually or whenever you have a new partner.
If their bowel, bladder, and sexual functions are normal. We want to know if there is anything abnormal that could affect your overall health. If there seems to be something that needs to be addressed, we may ask you to schedule another appointment to discuss that issue specifically.
It’s important to remember your annual exam is a two-way conversation, so be curious about your vaginal health. No question is off limits, and if it seems like I need to get into more detail, I may suggest a follow-up appointment just to concentrate on a specific concern. Frequently asked questions I hear include:
Throughout the course of a woman’s life, her health needs change – just like her annual OB-GYN appointments.
During the early years of a woman’s life up to about the age of 21, the annual exam usually consists of more of a conversation than an exam. Gynecologists will talk about the importance of being knowledgeable when it comes to protecting yourself against STIs and preventing unwanted pregnancy. Conversations may involve what a normal menstrual cycle looks like, STI testing, and what birth control is best for you. Often times a pelvic exam is not needed yet if all is normal.
The annual visit now includes a breast exam, abdominal exam and a pelvic exam. These exams are to check for any abnormalities such as lumps or any painful areas. Testing for strains of HPV may also be recommended during this time. Pregnancy prevention or the desire to become pregnant typically occurs during this life stage, so we discuss contraception options, fertility options and preconception counseling.
The annual visit now includes discussions of menopause. Some women may start to experience irregular or heavy periods, night sweats, mood swings and hot flashes. Menopause may also lead to urinary incontinence or bladder leakage since estrogen production starts declining. Estrogen keeps the cells of the vaginal lining healthy, but during menopause, many women experience Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause (GUSM), a new term that encompasses both atrophy and urinary symptoms associated with menopause and a lack of estrogen. To my patients experiencing bladder leaks, I recommend Poise® Ultra Thin Pads with Wings to keep them feeling clean, dry and fresh all day. Along with your annual gynecologist visit, women should schedule regular screenings for health conditions through tests like mammograms, bone density screenings and colonoscopies.
During annual visits in this age, women often encounter more issues with menopause-related hormone changes. Vaginal dryness and decreased sexual desire often become concerns, so we discuss the treatment for these issues, including counseling if needed. Also, women over 60 should see an OB-GYN to screen for breast and cervical cancer and to help monitor for signs or symptoms of things like ovarian and uterine cancers (since there are no routine screenings for ovarian or uterine cancers). It’s still possible to detect cervical cancer over the age of 65, but if a woman has never had pre-cancerous cells and has no new sexual partners, she may be a candidate to discontinue annual Pap smears after discussion with her OB-GYN.
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Author Summary: Dr. Staci Tanouye, MD, board-certified OB-GYN is a physician in a private practice and an expert in adolescent health, sexual health, reproductive health, and menopausal health. She has become one of the leading gynecologists on social media with the mission to educate women and all people with vulvas to love their bodies through knowledge and empowerment.
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