The thought of scheduling your routine gynecological exam is not exactly the most exciting thing on your to-do list. But it is necessary, and believe it or not, there are things you may not know that will make the experience better for you. First and foremost, your gynecologist is a doctor, which means this person is not only professional and knowledgeable, but they also care about making you feel safe and comfortable.
If you don’t believe me, read on for peace of mind straight from a gynecologist herself. I’ve consulted Dr. Kimberly Bridges-White, M.D., of Garden State Obstetrical and Gynecological Associates to get some perspective on the things your gynecologist wishes you would stop worrying about.
1. Going to your appointment during your period
This is something that’s highly contested, but I'm here to tell you the truth once and for all: yes, you can go to the gynecologist when you’re on your period. Gynecologists have seen everything, and menstrual blood is no different.
Dr. Bridges-White believes this is one of the biggest misconceptions about gynecology appointments. "If the [patient's] complaint is an irregular cycle or heavy period, then it is no problem to be evaluated at that time," she says. However, there are instances when period blood can interfere with the results of your appointment.
"If one would like me to check for a yeast infection or chlamydia or gonorrhea, that is different," Dr. Bridges-White adds. "I will have to look under a microscope to test it, and a large amount of red blood cells on the slide will prevent me from seeing anything. Often, blood may cause a false-positive test result." Similarly, period blood can yield inconclusive results when you're getting a Pap smear test.
You might have to come back and get some testing done again, but you should never cancel an appointment altogether because your Aunt Flow is in town. If your flow is heavy and you are worried that your excessive bleeding might interfere with your appointment, always contact your doctor first.
2. Grooming before you go
Like I literally just said, gynecologists have seen everything. Although you may feel self-conscious about some extra hair down there, chances are your gynecologist won’t even notice (or care).
"We don't care at all," Dr. Bridges-White says. "It is also very awkward when women come into the office announcing how they have "prepped" just for the exam." Obviously, if shaving or waxing will make you feel more comfortable, go for it. However, keep in mind that your gynecologist is a doctor, and they are guaranteed to be much more concerned about your vagina’s health than your vagina’s appearance.
In fact, in some cases, going overboard with grooming may actually have a negative effect on your experience in the doctor's office. "The more waxing and shaving that a patient does, the more prone they are to heavier vaginal discharge and boils," Dr. Bridges-White says. "Hair is your first line of defense to prevent bacteria. The second line are your vaginal secretions that keep bacteria out of the uterus. If you remove all of the hair, the vaginal secretions must increase." So, if you come into the office to ask about this seemingly excessive discharge, your gynecologist will likely say that the secretions are completely normal.
Keep all of these things in mind the next time you "prep" for an appointment, or any event in general.
3. “Freshening up” to the extreme
It makes sense to worry about what you smell like—especially in that region—before your appointment, but don’t freak yourself out too much about any odors or perspiration that may or may not exist. Now, this isn’t an excuse to hit the gym or skip the shower before your appointment. It’s just a reminder that your gynecologist sees many patients on any given day, and your typical odor will not stand out amongst the rest (unless there is something more serious going on – in which case, it’s not your fault).
Along the same lines and as previously mentioned, relax about the amount of discharge you have. Every person discharges, and while some might have it more than others, it is completely normal. If, however, your discharge is discolored or has an abnormal odor, let your gynecologist know this so that they can test you for a possible infection.
Dr. Bridges-White has some tips for everyday vaginal healthcare. "Wash in between the lips of the vagina daily, and wash front to back," she says. "When wiping with toilet paper, wipe front to back. Do not use douches! They cause an increase in vaginal bacteria that cause a fishy odor, which will further increase your discharge."
Another common worry Dr. Bridges-White often hears women complain about is an odor later in the day, but she reminds us that the vagina area has sweat glands too. To combat such odors, she says, "Do not wear your sweaty gym clothes all day ––take them off immediately after [a workout] to prevent vaginal and yeast infections." Good to know.
4. Addressing your most personal concerns
One of the most important things you can do at an appointment is open up about any questions or concerns you may have. I suggest writing them down beforehand, so if you get nervous in the exam room and draw a blank, you have something to fall back on. Don’t be embarrassed by your lack of knowledge about something, either. Your gyno is the expert, after all. They will not judge you, and will be glad to inform you about anything you want to know.
Dr. Bridges-White warns that if you don't feel at ease in your gynecologist's office, you are in the wrong office. "You should always feel comfortable with your gynecologist," she says. "If you feel rushed, your concerns are not addressed or you don't feel comfortable having a candid conversation, then you are at the wrong doctor's office."
She adds, "This is the most sensitive and personal area of your body and your provider should respect that. Your first visit, you should be clothed and interviewed so that you are not intimidated. Once your questions are satisfied, then you will feel more comfortable proceeding with the exam." I love this advice.
5. Opening up about your sexual activity
It’s no secret that sexual activity is super personal, but your doctor is not someone to withhold information from. Whether you’re sleeping with multiple partners, a significant other or aren’t sexually active at all, it can be awkward to divulge the details without feeling embarrassed. However, in order for your gynecologist to do their job, they must know this information in order to guide you towards the safest (and most necessary) methods to prevent STDs or unwanted pregnancy.
Dr. Bridges-White emphasizes that many college women have misinformation about STDs, and the only way to learn accurate information is to speak up and ask questions. "Another misconception is that you have to have symptoms to have an STD—this is absolutely not true!" she says. "Chlamydia and trichomonas can stay in the vaginal tract for long periods of time and may not cause any symptoms."
What's more, Dr. Bridges-White finds that many young women don't realize they can acquire an STD without having sex. From oral sex, you can get a throat infection from gonorrhea, oral herpes or genital warts of the gums. From anal sex, you can contaminate the vagina with bacteria from the colon. While such risks are not necessarily normal occurrences, the only way to know the safest and most preventative measures is by asking the expert who is at your disposal.
Keep in mind that no matter what information you dispel to or discuss with your gynecologist, you are in a safe space. They are not going to judge you, no matter your level of sexual activity or lack thereof.
6. Getting a Pap smear test
The dreaded Pap smear test is often extremely misconceptualized by young women. First and foremost, it is a screening procedure that tests for precancerous or cancerous cells on the cervix.
"People often believe that the Pap smear checks for all types of female cancer and STDs," she says. "It only checks for cervical cancer and does not include a screen for STDs. Some women also believe that whenever they have had an exam with a speculum, a Pap smear was automatically done, but this isn't always the case." Dr. Bridges-White recommends checking with your gynecologist before and after an exam to see if a Pap smear was done.
7. Visiting too often (or not often enough)
By this point, you might be wondering just how often you can (and should) be visiting your gynecologist. Is an annual enough? Well, to put it simply, there isn't one clear answer. It's very dependent upon individual circumstance, but you should be going whether you are sexually active or not.
"Once a year for a visit is adequate for general health," Dr. Bridges-White says. "However, any woman may make an appointment if she has any concerns regarding STD testing, menstrual irregularities, breast masses, abdominal pain, etc." It's always a good idea to make an additional appointment for STD screening if you change sexual partners, she adds.
Take a deep breath; a visit to the gynecologist is by no means as scary as you think it is. Your doctor is there to not only make sure you’re healthy, but also to make sure you’re informed and comfortable. The next time you schedule an appointment, come prepared, calm and ready to address your concerns. Trust us, you’ll feel better in no time.