When it comes to women’s health, the internet can be both a helpful tool and a major source of false information. In an effort to combat some of the less-than-accurate sources out there, we teamed up with Allergan to bring you some facts, straight from healthcare providers.
Right up there with public speaking, meeting your S.O.’s parents for the first time, and getting a bikini wax, going to the gyno can be one of the most anxiety-provoking aspects of the human experience.
But it doesn’t have to be. Before your next visit, take a deep breath and remember that your healthcare provider is the last person you need to feel embarrassed in front of (and, more importantly, yearly checkups with a healthcare provider are vital to your health and well-being). We chatted with Dr. Nicole Bullock, a Texas-based Ob/Gyn, about everything you need to know before your visit, to help you arrive calm and prepared.
Sometimes referred to as a physical or annual exam, a well-woman visit is a yearly check-in appointment with your healthcare provider. Dr. Bullock says that the typical visit consists mostly of talking about women’s health. Your provider might ask you about your periods or any pain you’ve recently experienced. They also might open a discussion with you about your birth control options or options you might currently be using.
Of course, there’s also a physical component, which will include an abdominal exam, a lung exam, a clinical breast exam (during which “one breast is exposed at a time and tissue is manually inspected for any abnormalities,” Dr. Bullock explains), and sometimes a pelvic exam.
“The pelvic exam is typically only done when we need to do testing, for something like a yeast infection, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or a Pap smear,” Dr. Bullock notes.
And while many may consider a pelvic exam the same thing as a Pap smear, the two are not one in the same: A Pap smear is a lab test (recommended starting at age 21) that screens for cervical cancer, while a pelvic exam is a physical exam. “If your [Pap smear] results are normal, you only need one every three years,” Dr. Bullock says. “If your Pap is abnormal, you’ll have follow-up testing and you’ll need three normal years in a row before we can go back to routine screening.”
In general, you should schedule a well-woman visit every year. However, Dr. Bullock advises that you speak with your healthcare provider for information on how frequent your appointments should be based on your individual medical history/needs.
You don’t need to bring anything you wouldn’t bring to a typical doctor’s visit (insurance card, ID, a form of payment). And don’t worry about wearing “embarrassing” underwear — if you’re having a pelvic exam, you’ll take those off long before your healthcare provider comes in the room.
Additionally, Dr. Bullock recommends knowing your personal medical history, your family medical history (mom’s, siblings’, aunts’, grandparents’), and a list of medications you’re currently taking. If you think you may forget, feel free to write these out in your phone in advance.
“I ask about birth control plans and preferences and if the patient is monogamous and practices safe sex,” Dr. Bullock says. “These personal questions are very normal.”
Your healthcare provider may also ask about your sexual history (think, questions like, “Are you at risk for infection?” or “Are you concerned about infection?”). Additionally, you can expect to be asked about your pregnancy history, which includes any miscarriages, abortions, and any births.
The most important thing to remember is that your healthcare provider’s office is a judgment-free zone: They’ve heard it all before, so there’s no reason to feel embarrassed saying — or asking — anything.
“It’s okay to ask what the pelvic exam entails and what it will be like. You can ask what they’re taking a urine sample for and what is being tested in your blood. Don’t be afraid to ask what is being done. If you’re given a prescription, you can ask what exactly it does, how long you need to take it, and [what any side effects are].”
The most common questions Dr. Bullock hears from patients revolve around birth control — they want to know what their options are and how effective each type is.
“There’s not something you can ask that we haven’t heard before. People may be embarrassed or hesitant to ask questions, but this really is a safe space to do it. If you can’t ask your [healthcare provider], who are you going to ask?”
“Remember that everybody feels uncomfortable,” says Dr. Bullock. “[We] have seen everything.”
Your healthcare provider is trained to make you feel comfortable, so once you’re actually in the room, you have nothing to stress about.
Most importantly, don’t be hesitant to ask your healthcare provider questions (either before or during the visit) that will help you feel more comfortable.
“Do not be afraid to call things what they are — you can say ‘vagina’ or ‘penis,’” Dr. Bullock says. “We know what it’s called.” If you’re more comfortable using another term to talk about your body, your doctor may ask questions to clarify what exactly you mean, but the key is truly using words you’re confident saying. Just remember: “You’re at the doctor’s office, we know anatomy,” Dr. Bullock says.
“None!” Dr. Bullock says. “I’d rather you hear the answers from me than somebody else.”
If you feel uncomfortable with your healthcare provider — even if you just feel like your personalities don’t mesh — it is completely within your rights to seek out new options.
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