Whether you’ve never had an annual gynecologic exam before or it’s been a while since your last, you probably know that it’s something you should do. Many women avoid having their annual exam out of fear, embarrassment, or inconvenience. But at OB/GYN Associates of Alabama, we’re never here to judge. We’re here to make sure that you are healthy and safe—and your annual exam is the best way we can help.
Annual exams are a crucial aspect of women’s health. In fact, preventative screenings save thousands of lives every year! Caught early, we can effectively treat a number of life-altering and life-threatening diseases like cancer, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), chronic conditions, and more. So let’s dig into what we look for during an exam and how it could save your life!
What to Expect During an Annual Gynecologic Exam
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that young women find a gynecologist between the ages of 13 and 15. These early visits are typically conversational—you can ask questions about your cycle, learn about birth control, and establish a relationship with your doctor.
Pelvic exams and pap smears typically start at ages 19 and 21 respectively, or when you become sexually active. It’s important to be honest and open with your OB/GYN about sexual activity—we’re not here to get you in trouble or judge you, simply to make sure you’re healthy and safe! Here’s what you can expect at that time.
Pelvic Floor Exam
When you arrive for your exam, a nurse will take your weight, height, medical history, and other vital signs. Then you’ll be asked to remove your clothing and wear a dressing gown. Your doctor will ask you to lie back and put your feet in stirrups. Then, they will examine your labia and vulva for external abnormalities, such as lesions, swelling, and signs of irritation or STDs.
Your doctor will tell you before they start the internal exam. This involves inserting a metal device called a speculum, which is used to gently open the vagina so the doctor can see the cervix. If you’re getting a pap smear, they will insert a tiny brush or swab to remove a sample of cells, which may feel like a tiny pinch.
Finally, the doctor will insert two gloved fingers inside your vagina while putting light pressure down on your abdomen. This helps them evaluate your uterus and ovaries for lumps—and it’s one of the best ways to detect uterine and ovarian cancer early. From beginning to end, this whole process only takes about 3-5 minutes!
Pap Smear Test
If the doctor took a pap smear during the pelvic exam, they will test the collected cells for cancerous and precancerous cells. This test is particularly effective in identifying cervical cancer. In fact, women whose cervical cancer is discovered via pap smear have a 92% cure rate, compared to 66% for women whose cancer was discovered because of symptoms.
Your doctor will also perform a breast exam during your visit to check for breast cancer. This part is painless—they will simply press your breast, feeling for lumps and abnormalities. If you are over 40, ACOG recommends that you begin getting mammograms, which you can schedule at the time of your yearly exam.
Mammograms are screening tests that use x-rays to examine the breast for cancer and other conditions. The machine compresses your breast, which may cause some discomfort, but this should only be brief. And because early detection significantly reduces the risk of death from breast cancer and increases your options for treatment, it’s certainly worth it!
Optional: Sexually Transmitted Disease Testing
STDs range widely in their symptoms and long-term effects, but all of them are serious. Certain STDs like gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and chlamydia can typically be cleared with a simple round of antibiotics. However, if left untreated, they can all lead to more serious complications. This is especially true for pregnant women.
If you’re sexually active, we highly recommend routine STD testing, even if you don’t have any symptoms. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to ask for an STD test if there’s a chance you may have been exposed—instead, you should feel proud that you’re taking care of yourself!
Should I Visit the Gynecologist Every Year?
ACOG recommends a pap smear every 3 years for most women who have had normal pap smear results in the past. But a pap smear is just one part of your annual exam. Even if you aren’t due for one, you should still come in once a year for your physical exam, any STD testing you may need, and a chance to discuss any concerns or changes with your doctor!
If you’re searching for a new partner in your health who will listen empathetically, provide clear answers, and recommend solutions that fit your lifestyle and preferences, call OB/GYN Associates of Alabama! We’re always here to be a kind, non-judgmental presence throughout all phases of our patients’ lives.
OB/GYN Associates of Alabama: Trusted Gynecologists in the Birmingham Metro
Since 1965, OB/GYN Associates of Alabama has been supporting women’s health in the Birmingham metro area, from a woman’s first gynecologic exam to menopause management and beyond. We strive to be doctors our patients can trust and feel comfortable with by providing individualized care and cutting-edge medical technologies. To request an appointment at our Hoover, Gardendale, or downtown location, reach out online or give us a call at 205-774-6994.