What To Expect At A Woman’s Annual Wellness Exam
An annual gynecological exam is a vital part of maintaining the wellness of anyone with a female reproductive system. Whether you’re just hitting sexual maturity or beginning to experience the effects of menopause, it is important to monitor your body for signs and symptoms of illness. But there are certain health issues that require routine visits with a professional to catch, treat, and prevent them. That’s where your annual women’s wellness exam comes in.
When Should a Woman Have a Wellness Exam?
When should a woman have a wellness exam? The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggest a first reproductive health visit with a gynecological professional should be between ages 13 and 15. In this introductory visit, there will typically not be any kind of exam unless the patient is experiencing symptoms. It is treated more as an informational experience, teaching the young woman about her body and the basics of reproductive health/sexual safety.
Practitioners typically use this time to discuss:
- Puberty and sexual development
- Birth control and contraceptives
- Prevention, screening, and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Breast self-examination
- General health practices for adolescents
It isn’t until age 19 that annual breast and pelvic exams become necessary. Pap tests are not added into the routine until 21. That said, knowing the ages at which testing begins doesn’t necessarily lend a real understanding of what to expect at an annual women’s health exam. It’s not uncommon to experience anxiety around gynecological visits, as vaginal health can be a sensitive issue. Knowing what to expect can help lessen that anxiety and allow patients to feel a sense of control walking into the room.
What to Expect at an Annual Women’s Health Exam
Depending on your situation, you may be meeting with a gynecology physician or turn to your primary care physician, certified midwife, or other accredited professional for your reproductive health needs. All practitioners will likely conduct their visits in similar ways, beginning with collecting your vital signs—heart rate, blood pressure, height, and weight—as well as information on your medical history and that of close relatives. You will answer questions pertaining to your sexual and reproductive health.
Be prepared to answer questions such as:
- When was your last period?
- Are you sexually active/when was the last time you were sexually active?
- Do you use birth control and/or contraceptives?
- Are you currently, or have you ever been pregnant?
- Have you had any gynecological surgeries?
You should also come prepared to discuss any problems you’ve had or are currently experiencing with your reproductive health or sexual function. Though you should ask your gynecologist all the questions that seem relevant to your visit, there are certain questions you may not even think to ask. There are a few specific symptoms of which you should remain conscious of and address with your provider.
They include (but are not limited to):
- Menstrual abnormality – missed periods, heavy periods, unusual spotting
- Pelvic discomfort – pain, bloating, bowel or urinary troubles
- Sexual issues – painful intercourse, bleeding during or after sex
- Unexpected changes – differences in the appearance of your vulva or feeling of your breasts
- Signs of Menopause – irregular periods, hot flashes, mood, and sleep issues
Once the important data is collected, your provider will most likely begin physical exams and health screenings. Some of the tests you can expect include:
The pelvic exam is done in three parts:
- A visual exam checking the health of the vulva
- An internal inspection of the vaginal walls and cervical area using a speculum
- A physical examination of the uterus and ovaries using a gloved hand
During this exam, it is not uncommon for women to experience some mild discomfort or pain. But, if for any reason you struggle with this portion of your visit due to anxiety or severe pain, be sure to communicate this with your practitioner. There are many options for alternate strategies to ease your discomfort or help you find calm during your exam experience. Patients with certain painful conditions such as vulvodynia may benefit from the use of a numbing lidocaine gel or a smaller speculum. If your concerns stem from psychological distress (i.e., sexual trauma, body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria), sharing this information with your gynecologist can help them understand your needs and how to help keep you comfortable during the exam.
One illness screened for during this exam is cervical cancer. Previously, women were told that they needed to have a cervical screening every year. Recently, the standards have changed. For women in their twenties, a cervical screening is needed every three years. Once they reach 30, however, the screening is only needed every five years. These cervical exams, known as “pap smears,” are conducted during the speculum-aided, internal portion of your pelvic exam. They are done by your practitioner gently scraping a sample of cells from your cervix to be analyzed by a laboratory for any sign of cervical cancer.
The largest cause of cervical cancer is an illness known as HPV, short for human papillomavirus. The pap smear done in the physical exam is not the only way to test for HPV. It is just one of the STDs screened for. If you are sexually active and have had a new partner since your last gynecological visit, your practitioner will most likely order a routine test for STIs.
- Gonorrhea – urine test, genital swab test
- Chlamydia – urine test, genital swab test
- Syphilis – blood test for those without symptoms, swab test when symptoms are present
- Genital Herpes – blood test for those without symptoms, swab test when symptoms are present
- Trichomoniasis – visual exam, swab test, or discharge sample
- HPV – visual exam for genital warts
- HPV – pap smear during cervical exam
- HIV – finger prick blood test
During this visit, your gynecologist will also perform a breast exam to check for any potential signs of breast cancer. Younger women will simply receive a manual exam where the practitioner feels for any lumps or differences in the texture of your skin and visually checks for nipple discharge. Around the age of 40 is time to discuss the need to introduce mammogram screenings into your wellness plan. A mammogram is a diagnostic test done by flattening the breast tissue to take an image from which your provider can detect signs of breast cancer or other abnormalities. Regular mammograms aren’t recommended until age 50, at which point they should be conducted every one to two years.
How to Prepare for Your Exam
A gynecological exam is not that much different than any other medical visit. Where it does differ is that certain biological functions will determine the timing of your exam. Remember, it is best to schedule your visit during a time when you know you are not going to be on your period. You will also want to avoid sexual contact or use of topical products for a day or two prior to your test, especially if you are going to be receiving a pap smear.
Otherwise, as with any other doctor’s visit, be sure to bring all the basics:
- Driver’s License/Photo identification
- Medical insurance card/plan information
- A list of your allergies
- The names and dosages of all the medications you are currently taking
- Notes of any symptoms you are experiencing, questions you want to ask your doctor, or tests you wish to request that fall outside the scope of a regular wellness visit (some practitioners will not perform certain tests, like Herpes, unless you are showing symptoms or request it to be performed)
Schedule Your Annual Women’s Health Checkup Today
Need to schedule your annual women’s health checkup? Arizona Gynecology Consultants have multiple locations in the Phoenix and Mesa areas, offering a full spectrum of gynecological health services and procedures. While Arizona Gynecology Consultants is a go-to for primary care services for women in Arizona, their team of experienced clinicians and surgeons draw clients from across the nation. With specialists in all areas of women’s health, they aim to create a personalized experience for every patient in their care.