Going to visit the gynecologist regularly is an extremely important part of every woman’s life. It’s also understandably a little terrifying because of how personal an appointment can be. Still, that shouldn’t deter you from making an appointment, because gynecologists ultimately care about your health and will be an essential source of information regarding periods, contraception, sexuality and diseases relating to your reproductive organs. Later on in life, they will also be there to answer your questions about menopause, infertility and prenatal care.
We talked to Dr. Julie Chor, an obstetrician/gynecologist and assistant professor at the University of Chicago. She specializes in adolescent gynecology, family planning and delivering babies. Dr. Chor provided several essential things you need to know about gynecology. So what are you waiting for? Find out what your gynecologist wants you to know about everything down there.
1. Visiting the gynecologist does not equal getting a pelvic exam
A pelvic exam is pretty much exactly what you picture when you think of visiting the gynecologist. The doctor will ask you to lay back and put your feet into stirrups, and then insert a speculum into you, which is used to check the inside of the vagina and cervix. It may sound intimidating, but remember it’s not all a gynecologist does. As Dr. Chor says, “This exam can be important, but is not necessary in every encounter with a gynecologist!”
2. You should start getting pap smears once you hit 21
The pap smear is a test that is used to check for cervical cancer. Your gynecologist will again use the speculum to see the interior of your vagina and cervix, and then gently scrape the opening of the cervix to collect cells that will later be examined under a microscope. According to the National Library of Medicine, you will need to avoid having sex and using tampons or douches at least 24 hours before the test. Be sure to schedule your appointment around your period too, as bleeding might lessen the accuracy of the results.
As Dr. Chor explains, “This important [pap] test screens for abnormalities of the cervix that can progress to cervical cancer, but this testing is not started until 21 years of age. In fact, unless a woman has an abnormality on her pap smear, pap smears are only performed every 3 years between the ages of 21 and 30.” Remember, while both are common procedures, a pap smear is not the same as a pelvic exam. “Many women mistake a pelvic exam (which can include a speculum exam and/or an internal bimanual exam) with a pap smear. Not every pelvic exam includes a pap smear,” Dr. Chor says.
In addition, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that young women see a gynecologist starting between age 13 and 15 - not for internal pelvic exams but for an external examination.
3. You really should visit the gynecologist every year
It is recommended that you see a gynecologist at least once a year. “While pap smears are normally performed every three years, it is recommended to check Gonorrhea and Chlamydia yearly in this age group and to check in regarding other important reproductive health issues,” Dr. Chor says. Even if you feel completely healthy or are not sexually active, there are a ton of reproductive health issues that the gynecologist will check for. “Such issues include menstrual cycles, contraceptive needs, sexually transmitted infections, pelvic pain, the list goes on.”
You should also remember to get STI (sexually transmitted infection) screenings, which are not a part of the annual gynecological check-up. Most importantly, growing a strong relationship with your gynecologist means that you will understand and learn how to take care of your body early on.
4. Birth control can do more for you than prevent pregnancies
Although its name suggests a one-track purpose, birth control actually has a lot of uses. “There currently is a wide spectrum of birth control options out their [there] - ranging from pills to Depo-provera (aka “the shot”) to several different intrauterine devices and the contraceptive implant,” Dr. Chor says.
“While these options are most commonly used to help prevent pregnancy, they are also used to help with a host of other reproductive health issues,” Dr. Chor continues. “These other issues include irregular periods, heavy periods, menstrual cramps and acne.” Before you decide to take birth control, consult with your gynecologist to see which type of medication fits your needs the best, whether it’s through a pill, a shot, with short-term or long-term effects. If you’re a beginner to this whole birth control thing, first check out this handy guide to The Pill.
5. Get HPV-vaccinated!
HPV, or the Human Papillomavirus, is a viral infection that causes genital warts or cancer in the cervix, vulva, and in other reproductive organs. There are over a hundred types of HPV, and many do not cause problems. HPV infections usually clear up without any intervention within a few months after acquisition, and about 90 percent clear within two years. A small proportion of infections with certain types of HPV can persist and progress to cancer. Since it is spread through oral, vaginal and anal intercourse, it is extremely important for women who have engaged in penetrative sex to get vaccinated. Dr. Chor says that the recommended age for receiving the vaccine is 9-26 years old, so collegiettes who haven’t received the vaccine yet should set up an appointment as soon as possible. Ideally, women should get the vaccine before they become sexually active, so the sooner the better. If you are sexually active and you have not yet taken the vaccine, it’s possible that the vaccine will be less effective because you may have been exposed to one or more types of HPV that the vaccine is designed to target.
In addition, the HPV vaccine, unlike some other vaccines you may have taken as a child, comes in a series of three doses that must be given over a course of six months. The second dose must be administered one to two months after the first does, and the third must be given six months after the first dose. There are actually two HPV vaccines that protect different types of HPV. The bivalent HPV vaccine prevents HPV 16 and HPV 18, which cause 70% of cervical cancers. Meanwhile, the quadrivalent vaccine prevents not only HPV 16 and 18, but also HPV 6 and 11, which cause 90 percent of genital warts.
Keep in mind that getting HPV vaccines does not mean you should forego cervical cancer screenings. Ultimately, it's important to consult with your gyno to see which treatments you are recommended to receive.
As you can see, gynecologists are an essential resource when it comes to understanding your body. While this article provides a snippet of the information gynecologists have for us collegiettes, it’s best to set up an appointment with your gynecologist to get the full scoop!