Firsts are freaky, but they don’t have to be. In Her Campus’ series My First Time, we’re answering the burning questions you might be uncomfortable asking about IRL. In this article, we tackle going to the gynecologist for the first time.
If you’re freshly 21, going to a club (or a bar) and having your first legal drink is probably the first thing on your mind. However, your 21st birthday marks another — and more important — first in your life: your first pelvic exam and Pap smear with a gynecologist. While this might sound scary, these exams are important when it comes to protecting yourself from cervical cancer and other reproductive health issues.
The gynecologist is a lot like this dentist, IMHO: not exactly the most comfortable place in the world. But, if I’m going to be honest, it really isn’t that bad. The entire visit, including the Pap smear and pelvic exam, should really only take about 30 minutes. How many other awful things have you survived for 30 minutes? Probably 8 a.m. classes, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and bad sex. You can definitely make it through this.
Doing paperwork is a must.
In the waiting room, you will have to fill out a few forms. (Yay, paperwork!) Seriously though, it’s super important to be honest and detailed in your medical history.
“Bring a list of the medications and supplements you take,” Shahine told Her Campus, “so you don’t forget one.” If you’re taking anything like birth control, antidepressants, or any other prescription medication, let your doctor know.
Details like your last period, your sexual history, and any concerns you have will help the doctor determine what to talk about during the appointment. And no, your doctor isn’t going to judge you because you are (or aren’t) sexually active. Give ‘em the nitty gritty — they want to hear it, so they can help. “There is nothing too weird, nothing too embarrassing,” Rodriguez tells Her Campus. “We have heard it all.”
You don’t need to wear anything special to the gyno for the first time, because you’ll be expected to change into that paper dress. So, wear whatever makes you feel comfortable, or dress in something that’s easy to put on and take off.
If you didn’t shave down there, no worries — seriously, the doctors don’t care. If you want to go all-natural or take this opportunity to go get waxed, it’s all up to you. Pubic hair doesn’t affect any part of the examination. “Just come as you are,” says Rodriguez.
OBGYN offices provide these gowns so the doctors can easily, and quickly, examine your breasts and vagina. They want to make sure you’re good from head to toe. It’s definitely a little uncomfy (and crinkly), but you’ll be back in your cozy outfit in no time.
Here’s what happens during your first gyno exam.
It’s easy to feel uncomfortable, but try to remember these are professionals, and this exam is meant to help you and your health. If you’re feeling anxious or unsure, your doctor is always there to walk you through it. “Bring a list of questions, because it’s easy to forget what you wanted to ask,” Shahine recommends.
The exam starts with a breast exam. The doctor will use their hands and light pressure to feel for any lumps in the breast that may be of concern. “In my young patients or [those] in their early 20s, it’s more so showing them how to do breast exams at home,” says Rodriguez.
Then, it’s Pap smear time. Typically, you’ll put your legs up in stirrups so your doctor can use a speculum — a plastic or metal tool that kind of looks like a duck’s bill — to open the vagina. This helps the doctor better see and examine your cervix. Speculums come in a bunch of different sizes and might look scary, but your doctor will use the size that’s best for you.
Then, your doctor will use a brush (it’s essentially just a sterile spoolie) to grab some cells from the cervix. The cells will get sent off to a lab where they are analyzed under a microscope for abnormalities. The exam is meant to screen for anything unusual in cervical cells that could signal cervical cancer. Pap smears also screen for human papillomavirus (HPV), which is a sexually transmitted infection. If left untreated, HPV can develop into cervical cancer.
“People who have multiple partners are at an increased risk of HPV,” says Rodriguez. “So, even if your mom or your aunt had HPV or cervical cancer at some point, it’s not necessarily something that is going to be passed down to you, because it’s just a fact of a sexually transmitted infection.”
After the Pap, the doctor will perform a pelvic exam to make sure the ovaries, vulva, vagina, and cervix are all healthy. To do this exam, they will insert a finger and feel for any abnormalities. This exam, while uncomfy, checks for cysts — which are definitely more uncomfortable in the long run.
If at any point you feel pain, tell the doctor. They want to know if anything causes you pain because it might show any ongoing issues. These exams should feel like pressure or discomfort, but pain shows that something is wrong. “During a pelvic exam, we’re actually looking at the vagina, at the vulva, we are feeling for ovaries, we are looking for any indications of pain, if you are having discharge or if anything looks abnormal to us,” says Rodriguez.
Did you start your period the morning of? No worries. “If it’s during a heavy cycle day, it might be a little bit difficult to get,” though, Rodriguez says. The heavy flow could compromise the sample by covering cervical cells in blood cells, making analysis difficult. If that’s the case, your doctor will just have you come back when everything is lighter or over.
Now that the hard part is done, here’s the good news: You don’t need another Pap smear for three years! While most doctors will still want to see you annually to check on you (and perform a pelvic exam), you only need the full examination every few years, unless there are abnormalities that your doctor may want to keep an eye on.
So, grab yourself some ice cream, buy the fancy lunch, or bag those jeans you’ve had your eye on once the appointment is over. You earned it!