More than half of all women consider their gynecologists to be their primary care providers and rely on them as their main sources of care.* That means for the majority of women, an annual gyno visit might very well be the only contact they have with a physician all year.
Considering its importance, women should take every opportunity to make the most of their appointments. Here are five tips that can help you prepare for your next visit and maximize the experience to the benefit of your good health.
1. To go with the flow or not to go with the flow. That is the question your health practitioner must answer. Your annual exam may be scheduled months in advance but as the date looms near, so can your period.
Most doctors agree that the best time to undergo an exam is mid-cycle, a week or two after your period. Your breasts aren't as swollen then, making exams and mammograms a little easier for your providers (and a lot more comfortable for you).
Moreover, the absence of blood makes it easier for a Pap smear to detect the possibilities of cancer, precancerous cells, infections or sexually transmitted diseases. If you're seeing a doctor because of a vaginal discharge problem, the presence of blood can also interfere with tests.
On the other hand, if your problem is irregular or heavy bleeding, your doctor may prefer to see you while you're on your period.
When it's time for your appointment and that time of the month hits, call your doctor's office to determine the best course of action.
2. Resist over-grooming. It's natural to feel self-conscious going into your exam but there's no need to worry about how you look down there or whether you smell "fresh" enough. Ditch the douches and powders, and never use baby wipes as vaginal wipes. These products contain chemicals that throw off the bacteria balance in your vagina, may cause allergic reactions in the sensitive genital area, or can interfere with tests and Pap smears.
Also, never worry about shaving your legs or pruning your "ladyscape." Doctors don't look to see whether or not you've shaved your legs and waxing your bikini area or trimming your pubic hair isn't necessary or recommended. Waxing is particularly risky as it can cause ingrown hairs or lead to bacterial infections. Remember, pubic hairs are there for good reason—to protect the sensitive genital area.
3. Abide by the 24-hour rule. Refrain from sexual intercourse 24 hours before your exam. Also, avoid the use of spermicides, foams or jellies the day before your office visit, and don't use a tampon beforehand, all of which can interfere with your Pap.
4. Walk "write" in. You've had your exam, the doctor has moved on to the next patient, and you're halfway dressed when you realize you forgot to ask that one burning question that's been weighing on your mind. Sound familiar?
Before your next visit, summarize any problems and write down all your questions in advance. Then take your notes in with you and ask your most important questions at the beginning of your visit.
While you're at it, write down the first and last days of your most recent period, list any menstrual symptoms you want to discuss with your physician, and record any medications, over-the-counter supplements, vitamins and herbs you're taking. Then keep your notepad handy to jot down answers and other helpful information your doctor shares during your visit.
5. Be upfront and honest. At your next appointment, pretend your gynecologist is your best girlfriend. Talk openly about concerns regarding your sex life, discuss contraception, and ask those seemingly embarrassing health and body questions. Your doctor is there to help you understand your body and meet your needs.
Most importantly, tell your doctor if there's been a change in your sexual relationship or if you suspect your partner of having multiple partners. Screenings for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) may not be a standard part of your annual visit. But by honestly sharing concerns about sexual activities, your doctor can conduct the necessary screenings to give you peace of mind. If you don't feel comfortable being open and honest, it might be time to find a new doc.
Remember it's your body and your responsibility to care for it.
*American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
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