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Do I Really Need a Yearly GYN Exam?

By Katie McHugh, MDJanuary 05, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

Guidelines for pap smears and cervical cancer screening have changed a lot in the last few years, leaving many women to wonder if they still need to go to their GYN every year.

If you’re over 21, the answer is yes.

Your yearly visit isn’t just about pap smears – it’s about checking in on your overall health. The physical exam and health assessment can help detect problems like diabetes, thyroid problems, and high blood pressure. Your doctor can help with contraception, screening for infections, and will make sure you are getting the right vaccines to keep you healthy. As you get older, your bone density will be monitored to keep you strong.

And the appointment gives you a chance to talk to your doctor. Share what’s new in your life and bring up any concerns, like a weird discharge or smell, new sexual partners, or a new sexual preference (lesbians and transgendered people need GYN exams too). Then you and your doctor can decide if there are any screening tests you might need. It’s also a great time to re-examine your birth control choices – you may want to switch to a different method that better suits your current needs. And make sure to bring up any problems you’re having with your period or pain during sex. These things are nothing to be ashamed of, but we can’t help unless you mention it. The appointment is also an opportunity to with your doctor talk about abuse. Whether you are experiencing abuse from your partner, or you are abusing alcohol or drugs, tell your doctor. We want to help.

This conversation not only brings your doctor up to speed on your current lifestyle and needs, but it also provides context for the physical exam. The physical exam usually includes a breast exam and a pelvic exam, as well as feeling your thyroid, neck, and your belly. Your exam may be more detailed based on what your risks are, but that is between you and your doctor.

During the breast exam, your doctor will feel your breast tissue to make sure there are no lumps, abnormal masses, or discharge from the nipple. This exam can sometimes be uncomfortable if you’re on your period, as you breasts may be tender. Breast exams help to identify changes in the tissue that could lead to cancer, and having a professional examine you increases the signs that those changes are detected. Speak up if you have any concerns or have noticed any changes.

And then there’s the pelvic exam, which everyone dreads. Remember, it’s important for your health and it is over quickly (if you are uncomfortable or in pain during the exam, be sure to tell your doctor). The exam has three parts: checking the outside, looking at the inside, and feeling the inside. During the pelvic exam, I am looking for abnormalities , which are usually things you can’t see yourself. Skin changes on the outside or inside can mean cancer, discharge can mean infection, and tenderness can mean abnormal growths. No one claims that the pelvic exam is fun, but it is important to be examined yearly to catch diseases early, start treatment, and prevent long term problems.

Remember that the goal of this appointment is to keep you healthy and catch any diseases early. These exams may be uncomfortable, but they are an important step in maintaining your health.

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