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Women's health exams

A women’s health, or ‘GYN’, exam is an external and internal check of a woman’s body which helps assess her health.

All women should have regular GYN exams. Additionally, women should begin having Pap tests to screen for cervical cancer at age 21. Those who’ve had vaginal problems such as Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) or frequent abnormal Pap tests may need to be seen more frequently. Ask your practitioner about the best schedule for you. If you have pain, abnormal bleeding or think you have an infection, consult your provider immediately.

Sometimes women feel apprehensive about GYN exams. Understanding the process can help you relax and learn how your body functions. Learning about your body in a supportive atmosphere enables you to be better informed about your health and sexuality.

Before the exam
Don’t urinate for at least two hours before your exam. At your provider’s office, you’ll be asked to fill out a form with information about your personal and family health, your menstrual cycle, pregnancies, sexual activity and contraception use. You’ll be weighed, and temperature and blood pressure readings taken.

The exam
A physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant may perform your exam. They’ll review your health information and any concerns you may have. Ask them any questions you may have during the appointment.

You’ll be given a gown and asked to undress. The clinician will perform a complete exam, including your heart and lungs. Your neck and breasts will be examined for abnormalities. A clinical breast exam should be performed by a provider every year. This is a good time to ask any questions you may have about your breasts or breast self-exams.

Next, you’ll be asked to slide to the end of the table, place your feet in stirrup-like supports and part your legs. Relax your muscles by spreading your knees as wide apart as possible and taking deep breaths; you may want to try wiggling your toes.

The external area of the genitals, called the vulva, will be examined. Then an instrument called a speculum will be inserted into your vagina, so your provider can view the vagina and cervix. This may be mildly uncomfortable, but usually isn’t painful; exhaling while the speculum is inserted can help. Speculums are available in different sizes; if you’ve never had vaginal intercourse or used tampons, you may want to ask that a smaller instrument be used.

At this point, a Pap test, or Pap smear, may be performed. This simple, usually painless, test is used to find cervical cancer or identify precancerous cells. Cells are taken from the cervix, preserved in a vial of liquid or on a slide and sent to a laboratory for examination. You may feel slight pressure or cramping during the test.

The speculum will be removed and the provider will insert one or two fingers of a gloved hand into your vagina. By pressing on the outside of your lower abdomen, they can feel the size, shape and position of your uterus, and check for inflammation or abnormalities of the uterus, Fallopian tubes or ovaries. A rectal exam may also be performed.

STI screening
If you are, or have been, sexually active, you may want screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs); tell your clinician before your exam. Screenings may include a visual check for sores or growths, urine tests, blood tests and/or additional samples taken during the pelvic exam. If you may have been exposed to a specific STI, let your provider know.

Protect yourself from STIs by practicing abstinence, or by using latex or polyurethane condoms and latex dams correctly and consistently. STI risk can increase with each new partner, even if the relationship is monogamous. Take personal responsibility for being sexually active by discussing STIs and contraception with your partner.

Prevent unplanned pregnancy by using contraception consistently and correctly every time you have heterosexual sex. Your clinician can answer any questions.

If you have unprotected sex or a contraceptive accident, emergency contraception (EC) can prevent unplanned pregnancy. Plan B One-Step, one brand of EC, is effective up to 72 hours after intercourse but is more effective the earlier it’s taken. If you are 17 or older, you can purchase Plan B One-Step without a prescription. Talk with your healthcare provider or pharmacist for more information about EC.