- Gynecologists can screen for certain cancers and do important examinations.
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- Visiting the gynecologist can be intimidating especially if you’ve never been before. To make it even more nerve-wracking, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about visiting this type of doctor.
- You shouldn’t always cancel your appointment if you have your period and you shouldn’t wait until you’re pregnant to go the gynecologist.
- Your gynecologist won’t automatically screen you for sexually transmitted infections during your appointment unless you ask to be tested or express certain medical concerns.
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There is a lot of misinformation about visiting the gynecologist and exactly what you can expect from a routine exam. Some things may be based on partial truths, but others are just flat-out wrong.
INSIDER spoke to doctors to debunk popular myths about going to the gynecologist.
MYTH: If you’re not pregnant, you don’t need to visit the gynecologist
- Even if you are not pregnant or trying to conceive, you should visit the gynecologist for regular exams.
The gynecologist isn’t just for those who are pregnant. These doctors offer so many resources, from cancer screenings to birth-control plans, for individuals of all ages.
As a base reference, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that individuals start visiting the gynecologist when they are between the ages of 13 and 15. This is to begin annual screenings and preventive health-care services.
And going to the gynecologist should be something you routinely do for life. For starters, visits to the gynecologist can also give individuals the opportunity to discuss any bodily changes they may notice with aging such as premenopausal and menopausal symptoms.
In addition, a gynecologist can screen you for things like ovarian cancer throughout your life, said Dr. Blair Bergen, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Ultimately, when and how often you should go depends on a lot of factors including your medical history and health concerns.
MYTH: Everyone has to have a Pap test each year
All individuals with cervixes should begin getting Pap smears to test for cervical cancer at the age of 21, per the American Cancer Society’s recommendations. However, how often you get a Pap test (or even when you get your very first one) can vary depending on your health concerns and medical history.
As a basic guideline, it’s recommended that individuals with cervixes get a Pap smear every three years if they’re between the ages of 21 and 29. Those aged 30 and over can consider getting a Pap test combined with a human papillomavirus (HPV) test every five years if they’ve had normal Pap smears in the past, according to Bergen.
But generally, individuals, especially those who have a higher risk of getting cervical cancer, should follow the personalized recommendations of their healthcare provider.
Read More: A simple guide to the Pap smear – what it feels like and exactly when you need to get it
MYTH: Pap smears also test for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
Many believe that a Pap test also screens for common sexually transmitted infections but this is not true, said Dr. Savita Ginde, vice president of medical affairs at Stride Community Health Center.
“While some medical providers automatically test women for common infections, this is not the rule. Speak up if you’d like to be tested or if you have noticed new or different discharge, odor, or are experiencing any pelvic discomfort,” Ginde told INSIDER.
As a base guideline, the CDC recommends everyone gets tested for sexually transmitted infections when they become sexually active. It’s important to talk to your doctor about which tests are right for your situation, whether you are in a monogamous relationship or you have multiple sexual partners, added Bergen.
Read More: 8 infections you can get from oral sex
MYTH: You have to cancel your gynecologist appointment if you are on your period
“Of course, this all depends on where you’re at in your cycle, how heavy your bleeding is, and why you’re visiting the doctor,” Ginde told INSIDER.
If you’re going for a pap smear and your flow is light – meaning you just started or are about to end your period – your doctor can likely get what they need to submit the test, Ginde said. If you’re not sure if you should cancel your appointment, call your doctor’s office to discuss how best to proceed.
MYTH: Cervical-cancer screenings are only for those who are currently sexually active
- If you have a cervix and have ever been sexually active, these screenings are very important.
In reality, cervical cancer can affect any individual with a cervix who has been or is currently sexually active in any way, per the American Cancer Society. Simply put, cervical-cancer screenings are appropriate for anyone with a cervix who is under the age of 65, Ginde told INSIDER.
“Most cancers are caused by persistent infection with HPV, which can be passed through skin-to-skin contact in the genital area,” Ginde explained. In many cases, HPV causes no symptoms and it can go undetected for a long period of time, so even if you are no longer sexually active or having sex with new partners, you’ll still want to get regular Pap smears.
MYTH: If you’re vaccinated against HPV, you can skip your Pap test
The HPV vaccine helps to prevent certain strains of the virus but it is important to note that the vaccine does not protect against all strains and therefore cannot prevent all cases of cervical cancer. And although getting them is important, vaccines are not always 100% effective.
This means that it’s crucial to continue to get screened for cervical cancer even after you are vaccinated, per the CDC’s recommendations.
“If you’ve been tested and are negative for the HPV virus, then you can likely go for a longer time between your Paps,” Ginde told INSIDER. But overall, she said you’ll want to follow your doctor’s advice regarding how often you should be screened because they can better factor in your medical history and personal concerns.
- There are some questions that your OB-GYN can answer for you.
Scheduling an annual visit with your OB-GYN is just as important as seeing your general practitioner. Not only is it a form of preventative medicine, but it gives you the opportunity to ask your OB-GYN any questions you may have.
“We can’t buy another life, so it’s important to ask questions in order to maintain this one,” Christine Greves, an OB-GYN at Orlando Health in Orlando, Florida told INSIDER. “No question is a bad question if you want to learn about your body. That’s what we are here for.”
While you may feel silly talking to your OB-GYN about any vaginal or reproductive concerns, keeping the lines of communication open and clear is imperative to your health. Go ahead and schedule your yearly checkup with your OB-GYN, but not before you take a look at these questions you should be asking your during your next visit.
Is my period normal?
- A gynecologist can talk to you about your period.
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First, no two periods are the same. That said, you should always ask your OB-GYN questions about your period, especially if it causes disruptions in your life.
“If someone is wondering, ‘Is it normal for me to bleed through my underwear when I’m on my period?’ or, ‘Is it normal for me to have spotting in between my period and mess up my white pants?’ the answer is no, it’s not OK, because it’s distressing your quality of life,” Greves said.
Should I be experiencing pain in my vagina?
- Any type of pain should be assessed.
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The short answer is no. If you are having pains of any kind in your pelvis or vaginal area, let your doctor know. It may be a sign of a serious underlying issue that needs to be checked out by an expert like your OB-GYN.
“If you have pain, you’ve got to ask about it,” says Greves. “Whether it’s in the lower pelvis area or it’s on one side or the other, or maybe it’s in the middle – You have to ask about that so it can get properly evaluated. It’s not normal to have pain all of the time and that’s something that needs to be talked about.”
What birth control is right for me?
- There are so many different types birth control.
The Guttmacher Institute found that 99 percent of sexually active US women, ages 15 to 44, have used at least one contraceptive method. Keeping this statistic in mind, it probably seems like all of your female pals are on some form of birth control – and that’s most likely true. But, what works for one woman might not work for another, so it’s important to talk to your OB-GYN about the best birth control option for you.
Greves suggested thinking about your long-term plan when it comes to birth control.
“Do you want birth control for a year before you try to conceive, or do you want more lasting birth control like a long-active reversible contraceptive like an IUD?” says Greves. “There’s also permanent sterilization. Talk to your doctor to determine what form of birth control fits in best with your lifestyle and future plans.”
Read more: There are 17 different types of birth control – here’s how to pick the best one for you
Why am I’m not as into sex as I used to be?
- Sexual desires and health should be talked about with your doctor.
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Sexual health is important but it can be one of the more uncomfortable topics to bring up to your OB-GYN. Your sexual desire can vary due to hormones, medicines, stress, and other factors that impact your day-to-day life. Having an open discussion with your OB-GYN can help you get to the root of the problem and come up with a solution to help increase your sex drive.
“Oftentimes patients ask, ‘Is it OK that my sexual desire has changed over time’ or ‘Why am I having pain during intercourse?’” Greves said. “These are questions that some people may feel shy about asking, but that’s what we are here for. These are everyday questions that we want to know so that we can help you.”
Why does my vagina look different?
- If you notice something new or different, ask your doctor about it.
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Maybe you look at your vagina every day or maybe you explore it on a less frequent basis. Whatever the case, you should be checking it out often enough to notice any significant changes. If you notice anything new in your private area, like bumps, new moles, or if things change colors, those are all things your OB-GYN should be made aware of, according to Greves.
My vaginal discharge smells. Do I have an infection?
- Different vaginal discharges can mean different things.
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Three out of four women will get a yeast infection during their lifetime, according to the Office On Women’s Health. If you’ve had one before, you know they are fairly common and can typically be treated with over-the-counter products. If you have frequent yeast infections or your vaginal discharge is a different color than normal, your body might be telling you something.
“If you have itching or a new odor, that’s something your OB needs to know about,” says Greves. “If your discharge is white and resembles cottage cheese and you have itching, then that can be indicative of a yeast infection. But, if you have green frothy discharge, this can possibly be a sign of trichomonas.”
Greves also says that if you have vaginal pain and discharge, you need to schedule an appointment with your OB-GYN as soon as possible because it could be a sign of pelvic inflammatory disease. Your doctor will diagnose the issue at hand and prescribe a treatment plan.
Do I need to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases if I’ve had the same partner?
- It doesn’t hurt to get tested.
Even if you’ve had the same sexual partner for a long period of time, it never hurts to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The same can also be said when you acquire a new sexual partner. Your OB-GYN is here to make sure you maintain optimum vaginal and reproductive health, which ultimately keeps your entire body working properly.
“We want to do a test for sexually transmitted infections. It’s very important to do and is relatively easy to test for,” Greves said. “If a patient does have an infection, it’s imperative that we treat it quickly. Half the time women can have infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia, for example, and not even know it.”
Read more: 14 surprising symptoms of STDs you need to know about
I want to start a family soon. What preemptive steps should I take?
- Your doctor can help you make sure that you are ready to start a family.
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Are you trying to conceive right away or a few years down the road? Talk to your doctor about your family planning timeline.
“I usually recommend starting prenatal vitamins three months before they start trying. This way the woman can get enough folic acid in their system,” Greves said.
There are some medications, like certain psychiatric pills or an ACE inhibitor for congestive heart failure, that aren’t OK to be on while pregnant.
“It’s always good to be prepared to get off those medications if you are anticipating trying to get pregnant,” Greves said. “Don’t be shy about asking those questions either.”
Do I need to get an HPV shot?
- You OB-GYN can help you figure out whether or not the shot is right for you.
- Joe Raedle/Getty
The human papillomavirus (HPV) infects 14 million people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, nearly one in four people have the HPV virus. While the symptoms don’t often manifest into anything serious, HPV can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancer in women. You’ve probably heard about the HPV shots from an advertisement on TV or online, but should you get it?
“Certain women that are more at risk than others for getting high-risk HPV,” says Greves, who was happy to see the shot approved. “Ask your OB and inquire about it. It just depends on where someone is in their life. It’s always a good idea to have an open and honest discussion with your OB-GYN.”
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