Going to the gynaecologist can be daunting, especially if it’s your first time or if you have had a previous negative experience. Fear not! Reproductive health is an important aspect of your health, and you are in control of who you choose as your doctor and what happens at the appointment.
A gynaecologist is a medical professional who specialises in women’s reproductive and sexual health. All women should visit their gynaecologist regularly to screen for potential problems related to the menstrual cycle and reproductive health. Your gynaecologist can help you understand more about how your body works, provide information about sexual health, and diagnose any potential illnesses so that you can receive proper treatment.
Your gynaecologist should be someone you can trust and feel comfortable with when sharing information about these intimate aspects of your life. It makes sense to take the trouble to find a good fit. Research the doctors available in your area—read the reviews and decide which gynaecologist seems more suitable to you. You can also ask your friends and family members for recommendations. Consider if you would feel more comfortable if your gynaecologist was a woman or a man? If they were younger or more experienced? Does the facility seem welcoming and trustworthy?
It is generally recommended that a young woman first visits a gynaecologist when she is in her early teens: between the ages of 13 to 15. At this age, the appointment usually lasts no longer than 20–30 minutes and will likely consist of an introduction to what your gynaecologist can do for you and the equipment that is used. This is a chance to get all your questions about puberty female anatomy, and reproductive health answered.
Your gynaecologist will provide you with information about your reproductive organs, genitals, feminine hygiene and sex, and will also show you how to do a self-exam of your breasts to screen for any signs of breast cancer.
Even if you are in your late teens or even twenties and you haven’t been sexually active, you will most likely not be asked to undress, and the only procedure performed will be a breast examination. It is never too late to start going to a gynaecologist if you’ve never been.
If you have been sexually active, your doctor will likely want to perform a pelvic exam and/or a pap smear, regardless of your age. The age at which the pap smear—a routine test for cervical cancer—is first performed differs from country to country. In the US it is 21.
If you are experiencing any complications with your menstrual cycle or you have any other concerns, your gynaecologist may recommend additional procedures.
If you are pregnant or considering having a baby, you will want to look for an OB/GYN: an obstetrician-gynaecologist, a doctor who is certified to care for female reproductive health and specializes in working with pregnant women.
Be honest with your gynaecologist about your sex life. It is OK to be sexually active and it is OK not to be. If you are still living with your parents and it is difficult to talk openly with them about sex, go see the gynaecologist alone or with a friend instead. Remember, during the appointment nobody else needs to be in the room apart from you and the doctor.
If you are not sexually active, a visit to the gynaecologist is more about getting to know your body and you can go any time. You should be sure to make an appointment if:
There are certain steps you can take to prepare yourself for a visit to the gynaecologist.
It is best to make the appointment for the week after your period, but it doesn’t matter all that much. You can still go if you are on your period. Gynaecologists are used to dealing with vaginal bleeding and other discharge. However, some tests may be affected by heavy bleeding. If you feel uncomfortable, you can always reschedule your appointment.
Before you go, make a note of the information you have about your menstrual cycle. At what age did you get your first period? When was your last period? How long is your menstrual cycle? Is it regular? Do you experience symptoms such as headaches, constipation, or severe mood swings with your periods?
Collect some family history if possible. Has anyone in your immediate family suffered from an illness related to reproductive health such as ovarian cancer, endometriosis, or polycystic ovary syndrome? This type of information can help your gynaecologist advise you on preventative behaviours.
You do not need to specially groom your genital area. There is no need to shave your pubic hair or douche your vagina. Douching is unnecessary and can be dangerous. Simply wash yourself with warm water and gentle soap the night before and wear clean underwear.
Some women prefer to wear a dress that can simply be lifted for the pelvic exam, but no matter what you are wearing your gynaecologist will give you privacy to undress and provide a gown, if necessary.
Perhaps the most intimidating part of a gynaecological appointment is the pelvic examination. You’ve seen it in the movies. The exam takes place with you lying back in a chair/bed that has been specially designed to allow the doctor to easily examine the reproductive organs and the pelvic area. It is simply a padded chair that can be raised and lowered and has supports where you can rest your legs in a raised position.
You will be asked to undress below the waist and to sit back in the chair with your legs up and resting on the supports. It may feel strange at first but, as a professional, your doctor should explain the process to you, answer your questions, and help you feel at ease.
Once you are settled, your gynaecologist will first do a visual examination of the genital area—the labia, vulva, clitoris, and anus—for any sign of infection or other abnormalities. Some practitioners might use a mirror to show you what they are seeing and describe what they are looking for in the specific body parts.
For the next part of the exam, your gynaecologist will use a tool called speculum. This is a device made of plastic or stainless steel that resembles a duckbill. It is inserted into the vagina hold the walls open and allow the doctor to see farther inside. The insertion process takes only a few seconds, but it can be a little uncomfortable. Do your best to relax your pelvic muscles. Your doctor will likely use a water-based gel lubricant to ease insertion. If the speculum is made of steel, it can also be warmed up beforehand. The discomfort of this routine exam is worth it because it allows your gynaecologist to better see the vagina and cervix to determine their health.
The speculum is currently being redesigned to make the procedure less of an ordeal. Expected improvements include covering the instrument with surgical-grade silicone that can be sterilised, adding a third leaf to the duckbill to allow for better visibility and less of “spread” sensation, and a quieter design.
If you are getting a pap smear, a cell sample from your cervix will be collected with a swab while the speculum provides access. This procedure can be unpleasant, but it is very short.
The pap smear is a test designed to detect early signs of cervical cancer. Doctors recommended that all women between the ages of 21 and 65 get a pap smear once every three years. If anything looks suspicious in the results, your doctor will contact you for further appointments.
The final part is the manual exam. Your doctor will insert gloved fingers into your vagina to feel for lumps and other abnormalities along the vaginal walls and inside the uterus while checking your lower abdomen from the outside with the other hand.
This is a routine pelvic exam, designed to gather the necessary information in the least amount of time. If you feel unsure about anything that is happening during the visit, don’t hesitate to ask your gynaecologist. They are there to help you.
The cell sample collected for a pap smear is tested only for signs of cervical cancer. You can also get tested for HPV (the human papilloma virus) and a variety of other sexually transmitted diseases. Read more about the HPV test here. HPV vaccines are also administered by gynaecologists.
If you require a test for a specific STD, discuss this with your gynaecologist when making the appointment.
Your gynaecologist might also insert a finger in your rectum to check muscle health and to look for tumours. While it might seem uncomfortable, they are a healthcare professional, and it is all done only to make sure of your general health.
Your gynaecologist may also use an ultrasound machine to examine the reproductive structures, to look for uterine cysts, or to monitor a pregnancy. This device uses soundwaves to produce an image of your internal organs and soft tissue.
Your doctor will also want to record your general measurements—height, weight, and blood pressure—to compare from visit to visit.
If you are sexually active but don’t want to get pregnant, your gynaecologist can help you choose the contraceptive method that is best suited for your body and your situation. You might be given a prescription for hormonal birth control to prevent pregnancy, or, in some cases, simply to regulate your menstrual cycle. If you would rather use non-hormonal birth control your gynaecologist can tell you about the best options. If you decide on an IUD (intrauterine device) for birth control, your gynaecologist will perform the insertion.
If you are hoping to get pregnant, your gynaecologist can advise you about steps you can take to improve your chances of conception.
Gynaecologists are doctors who have specifically studied female sexual health. There is nothing to feel awkward about, even if it seems so at first. Your doctor is a professional who wants what’s best for you. However, if you feel your doctor doesn’t understand you well or that you cannot be fully open with them, don’t be afraid to change your healthcare provider.
By going to the gynaecologist regularly you can learn more about your body, avoid preventable diseases, and take better care of your health.
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