Editor’s note: This article originally appeared at Geisinger.org. Geisinger is one of the nation’s largest rural health services organizations, serving more than 2.6 million residents throughout 44 counties in central and northeast Pennsylvania. Whether you have insurance or not, you can make an appointment for a free or low cost GYN exam at health centers across Pennsylvania.
Timing is everything
Most colleges and universities require their incoming students to have a routine physical completed before reporting to their first class. This ensures that students are healthy and up-to-date on immunizations before coming into a close-living and learning situation.
The same can be said about women having a routine gynecological exam before they begin their freshman year.
“It’s recommend that women have their first gynecological exam between the ages of 15 and 18,” said Brian Murray, M.D., a gynecologist at Geisinger Mt. Pleasant, Scranton. “All women should have had a gynecological exam by the time they’re ready to begin college at age 18. However, if a woman becomes sexually active prior to their 18th birthday, GYN exams should begin sooner.”
If a young woman hasn’t had a GYN exam before, having one prior to leaving for school will ensure they are healthy and informed about how to protect their health.
The exam explained
Before any part of the actual exam begins, your doctor will likely take some time to talk to you and get to know you a little better. This is meant not only to put you at ease and calm your nerves, but also to get a picture of your overall health and any risk factors you may have for health conditions.
“The first part of a routine GYN exam involves your doctor performing a breast exam — this allows your doctor to look for or identify any unusual lumps or changes in the tissue and skin,” Dr. Murray said. During this part of the exam, your doctor will also show you how to perform a self-breast exam so you can check for any lumps or changes in between visits.
Next, the doctor may perform a pelvic exam, which not all patients require. During a pelvic exam, your doctor examine the external genital area as well as the cervix, vaginal walls, uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries.
“During the pelvic exam, your doctor may perform a Pap smear,” Dr. Murray said. “This test consists of taking cells from the cervix to detect the presence of pre-cancerous or cancerous cells.”
Let’s talk about…sex
Based on the earlier discussion of your health and history, your doctor may recommend testing for sexually transmitted diseases. While the conversation about your sexual health may be uncomfortable, it’s important to be honest in order for your doctor to accurately assess any risks to your health.
One part of the discussion may be about human papillomavirus (HPV).
“In general, we recommend you receive the HPV vaccine starting as early as 9 – 11 years. But, if you haven’t yet received the vaccine, your doctor may recommend you receive it now if you are still under the age of 26. The vaccine is designed to protect against HPV infection and the health problems the HPV infection can cause,” Dr. Murray said.
Your routine GYN appointment is also an ideal time to bring up any questions you may have about birth control options.
“Anything you discuss with your gynecologist about birth control, sex, STDs, pregnancy or anything else is private and confidential. Ask any questions you may have about your reproductive health to learn what you can do to protect your health as you embark into a new phase of your life,” Dr. Murray advised.